Maximize the Benefit of New Farm Technology
We have access to technology and information as never before. Working with vineyards in Virginia, I see examples of growers that master newly available information to improve their operations; unfortunately, I also see some growers that are overwhelmed by information that is not particularly useful or representative to their farm.
Vineyards are perennial cropping systems; a distinction is necessary between the information needs during the vineyard design phase (before vines are planted) and established vineyard management (post planting). A grower will have to work harder to collect information in the design phase, i.e. soil characterization, while with an established vineyard, vines provide responses such as vine size and crop yield. Management zones or blocks are portions of the vineyard that will be managed as single units. Use information during the design phase about the site to help design management zones.
Using Information Properly
In the vineyard design phase, it is not just a matter of collecting information about a particular site, the trick is verifying then interpreting this information. You need to decide how to weigh different attributes, such as topography, soil characteristics, and weather information, with the goals of the enterprise. Using Web Soil Survey or the Geovine.org tool here in Virginia can build clear soil maps for an area of interest using soil survey information, but keep in mind that the soil survey data is coarse and requires ground-truthing. After verification, the information must be interpreted and integrated into the vineyard design.
Decisions made during this design phase have a bearing on vineyard management and production for decades, so agonizing over the details is worth it at this point.
Now, fast forward to management of an established vineyard. If vineyard design was comprehensive and vines are performing uniformly within management zones, then ongoing management of the vineyard will be straightforward. However, in many cases, there is notable variability across the management zone. Examples include variable vine size, abiotic injury (i.e. cold injury), or pest pressure. Determining the source of the variability should be a priority. The cause may be ascertained by walking the vineyard and making sense of what one observes.
However, if the vines are uniform across the management zone, it should be simple to collect maintenance data in a composite form. Composite information will aid in maintenance of the productivity of the vines. Use a couple sentinel vines for collecting pruning weights and crop yield information to assess the productivity of the vineyard. For routine soil analyses or plant tissue analysis, collect composite samples across the management zone.
Free Resources Available
Weather predictions are ubiquitous; find a forecasting resource that works for you. A number of weather interpretation services are available as well. The Network for Environment and Weather Applications (NEWA) available via Cornell University offers access to many weather stations, IPM modeling, and interpretation of the data. Check it out at NEWA.Cornell.edu.
In some cases, you may require information that is more specific, for example, a weather station in the vineyard or subscription to a service. In these cases, you should develop a plan for collecting information, and a plan for storing and accessing the information generated. Keep in mind that it is not just a matter of collecting information, the key is the ability to interpret the information and be able to use it to manage the vineyard more effectively. Check with your producer organization or Extension representative about buying into a statewide or regional system, which may pass along some savings and database resources to you.
Consider a simple rule of thumb: “If the new resources allow to you to organize or interpret what you see in the vineyard more effectively, that is a benefit. If the new resources hinder or confound your ability to interpret what you observe in the vineyard, it may not be a good fit for your operation.”
Many experienced vineyard managers are able to maintain a vineyard utilizing low-tech and free resources such as a daily weather forecast, rain gauges, and min-max thermometers over the vineyard combined with a logbook and frequent scouting. These growers are fine without introducing sophisticated tools that may not offer a benefit to the farm that exceeds the cost. Each farm is unique, so the mix of technology needed for each farm will be different.