From historic wildfires to the unprecedented effects of a global pandemic, 2020 had many surprises in store for grape growers. We’re looking back on an eventful year with industry leaders who’ve had a front-row seat.
In this interview, we’ll hear from Max Jehle, president of Max Ag Consultants, Inc., where he is an agronomic advisor and pest management specialist for vineyards and table grape growers like Sun Pacific.
What notable events affected vineyards in 2020?
There was a large amount of summer rot this year industry-wide, and it all started back in August with the record setting heat. Many vineyards suffered from the rot, but did not lose their whole crops.
The pandemic caused labor shortages early in the season. Many growers had trouble getting fully staffed crews to show up—there were a lot of undocumented COVID-19 cases, and many workers were at home schooling or caring for their children.
Early grapes in the southern regions did well, but as we moved north, there were more effects from the wildfires. Smoky days caused a reduction in solar radiation, which slowed the maturation of the grapes and delayed the harvest. Once the almond orchards began shaking trees for their own harvest, the dust reduced solar radiation, too, slowing maturation of the grapes even further.
Given the impact of these events, what distinguishes the growers who’ve been able to keep their businesses healthy?
Diversification of crops and varieties helps keep the business strong. Partnering with the right breeding program and making good decisions on what variety to plant at the right time, has been advantageous for Sun Pacific. It’s a gamble that growers have to take to invest in new varieties—you have to take some risks, be proactive, and evaluate the variety carefully. Does it grow well, does it harvest well, does it ship well?
Sun Pacific grows modern varieties that yield well and have strong consumer demand, including internationally: Sun Pacific has increased market share in the Pacific Rim, because they grow the varieties that the region tends to buy. They also grow a lot of organic table grapes, so there’s an opportunity to market the grapes either conventionally or organic.
What trends or changes have you noticed when it comes to irrigation management?
Irrigation management was especially important with the record heat in August. Ceres Imaging helped us to detect plant stress, confirm that our irrigation schedules were on target, and improve uniformity. For example, the imagery was helpful in deciphering areas where the irrigators were telling us that vines looked bad, but the grapes looked good—we found these areas had a sandy soil type where the water was filtering through too quickly.
We have also been using the Phytech system, which has the dendrometers that measure trunk growth on a microscopic scale. The trunk moves and grows as you irrigate, so this data helps us stress the grapes at the right time of year, for the right amount of time.
Irrigation is moving to more automation throughout the farms. Grape growing is pretty intricate, and it takes a great deal of management—a lot can happen in a week of the development of the grape, so managers must take a hands-on approach.
Want another take on the year? Read more from Peter Vallis of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association or Vicky Sharlau of the Washington Winegrowers Association.