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Sonoma County’s Agricultural Roots, Part 2

Columnist: Richard L. Thomas
November, 2014 Issue

Richard L. Thomas
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Basically, for simple numbers, a machine can harvest an acre per hour and replaces about 30 pickers over the course of the day.

Well, I guess it’s time to finish the history lesson. For those of you who missed last month’s column ["Sonoma County’s Agricultural Roots,” Vine Wise, Special Wine Issue 2014], I was discussing the agricultural history of Sonoma County, specifically viticulture. I started out with the installation of the first block of drip irrigation at the SRJC school farm. It was new and innovative and took some time to catch on, but it obviously finally did to all but the hardest of heads. It was followed up somewhat later with “fertigation”—fertilizing through the drip irrigation system. It saved a tremendous amount of time and labor and was far more efficient in fertilizer use. It wasn’t until much later that foliar application became the “in thing.”
As time progressed and vineyards starting encroaching onto the hillsides, erosion control became a big issue. With that in mind, we’ve been playing around with the agricultural commissioner’s office and experimenting with non-till farming; in other words, “Mow, don’t plow.” This was complete heresy in many growers’ minds, and still is today from the look of the dust bowl vineyards still around. Concurrently, cover cropping was also being looked into. This is when you plant a high vegetation-producing crop in the fall and then disc it in the spring to add organic matter and some nutrients to the soil. You can do it in every row, every other one and so on, depending on your particular conditions. Non-till will also give these same benefits if the proper choice of grasses and legumes is selected and you’re not constantly beating your soil to death with rotavators, discs or plows. Look around—you’ll be seeing more and more each year.
Probably the single biggest advance we accomplished at the farm occurred as a result of a sabbatical leave I was awarded in 1987. In December 1986, we (my family) left for New Zealand and a research station called Ruakura, south of Auckland. The researcher there was Dr. Richard Smart. He was testing and designing new concepts of training vines to improve both quality and yield. Dr. Mark Kliewer from UC Davis was also on sabbatical at the same time, so I couldn’t have asked for two greater mentors. We worked with an alphabet soup of systems, such as TK2T, TK3T, VSP, Smart-Dyson and the like. Each had its merits and also problems. Leaving New Zealand, we headed for another three months in Australia, where we continued some of this work. We also worked with Dr. Peter Dry at the Waite Institute in Adelaide, where we studied modifications of various drip regimes.
Refreshed and enlightened, we returned home and, watch out world: Here I come with all these new-fangled ideas. I brought Dr. Smart here for grower seminars, worked with Davis and put in our own trellis trial block, which contained 13 different systems students and growers could look, see and touch. As usual, and no big surprise, growers were a bit reluctant at first, especially since none of these systems were cheap. But the proof is in the pudding and, soon, the benefits turned into dollar signs with quality and quantity. To no one’s surprise, the biggest hurdle was at the winemaker level, where anything new in the vineyard isn’t good: We must maintain tradition! Finally, a few progressive winemakers, like Mike Lee at Kenwood, saw the light and the world slowly started changing. Today, virtually all of our county’s vineyards are on some sort of trellis, from the very simple vertical shoot positioning (VSP) to the double-split Ruakura Twin 2 Tier (RT2T) and everything in the middle. (Dear old Zinfandel still likes being head trained, however.) My one sadness is that I never accomplished the ability to mechanically harvest some of the more elaborate systems.
That brings us up to the last big vineyard evolution: mechanical harvesting. The first battle was growers love it and winemakers hate it. Wineries had a million excuses why they wouldn’t accept mechanically harvested fruit and basically refused to accept reality. But today, with a lot of learning on the wineries’ part, economics and a severe lack of labor have accelerated the acceptance. Night picking, when the fruit is cool, especially white grapes, has been made easier and cheaper with machines and improved quality.
Machines can run 24 hours per day and thus optimize picking time. Basically, for simple numbers, a machine can harvest an acre per hour and replaces about 30 pickers over the course of the day. They aren’t inexpensive, at about $300,000 each (new), but they can do other things in the vineyard, too, such as spraying. In other words, using it like an over-vine tractor, similar to European practices. Harvesting 300+ acres per year can justify this cost and custom picking is always an available option. No one ever said grape growing was cheap. The rest of the world has left us behind when it comes to mechanization in the vineyard. Perhaps this current labor crisis will spur more local development.
There, you’re caught up, so now to your homework. See if you can taste a mechanically harvested wine vs. one that was hand picked (touched, not untouched, by human hands).


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