UC Food Blog
Will machines replace the romance of the hand-cultivated wine grape vineyard? A “touchless” vineyard was among the latest research on labor shortages, weeds and pest management by UC Cooperative Extension scientists discussed at Grape Day at the UC Davis Oakville Station, located in the epicenter of California wine country, on June 6.
About 200 wine grape growers, vineyard consultants and other industry people attended to learn about the latest UC Cooperative Extension research. Vineyard managers from boutique wineries such as Fork in the Road to Pine Ridge Vineyards to the Fortune 500 wine company Constellation Brands gathered at the research station's experimental vineyard. Several vineyard equipment representatives brought their machines to the field to demonstrate their weeding, pruning and canopy management capabilities.
Addressing labor shortages
To help growers attract and retain farm workers, Monica Cooper, UC Cooperative Extension advisor for Napa County and her research assistant, Malcolm Hobbs, are conducting a survey of agricultural workers to determine the factors that affect job satisfaction. They found the number of female workers in Napa County has increased rapidly since 2013. “Women may be moving into the labor pool to fill vacancies caused by the decline in the number of male workers migrating to the U.S. for agricultural work,” Cooper said.
They plan to provide participating companies with custom recommendations for recruiting and retaining workers.
“We will also be generating a generic summary that will be widely shared with participants and non-participants at the close of the study. For now, we cannot make any general conclusions or recommendations because data collection is ongoing,” Cooper said. “We are aiming to distribute our final report this winter, so stay tuned.”
To help growers reduce their need for hand labor, UC Cooperative Extension viticulture specialist Kaan Kurtural designed a “touchless” demonstration vineyard that is mechanically managed. The mechanized vineyard is one of six trellis systems he is studying for water use, nitrogen use efficiency, yield and fruit quality of the wine grapes.
“We're always looking for ways to improve yield, quality and to reduce cost,” said Francisco Araujo, director of viticulture for Atlas Vineyard Management. “In light of the labor shortage we're facing right now, Kaan is exploring new production systems that include new trellises, mechanization, different types of mechanization from pruning to shoot thinning and trunk suckering. He's obtaining information about how these new trellis systems that he is investigating are going to play with yield and quality.”
The touchless vineyard experiment started out as a demonstration at first, but with grower interest, it turned into a full-blown research project.
“It started as way of saving labor costs, but when we started looking at the physiological aspects of how these plants grow, we saw the benefits from the quality point of view in addition to the labor savings,” said Kurtural, who is based in the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis.
A traditional vineyard in the Napa area is about a meter or 36 inches above the vineyard floor with vertical shoots held up with wires, which are moved by hand.
“We said, ‘Why don't we turn the system upside down?' Grow a tall trunk then put the bilateral cordon about 62 inches above the vineyard floor, that way we can push the rows a lot closer,” said Kurtural, who oversees the 40-acre Oakville experimental vineyard. The leaves grow down to generate the same leaf area as a traditional vineyard, but the leaves in the mechanized vineyard use water more efficiently so the no-touch vineyard requires less water compared to traditional vineyard systems.
“This is a dense system, this is 1.5 meters by 2 meters, roughly 1,340 plants per acre – we're getting by here on a third to quarter acre foot of water,” Kurtural said.
“It costs us roughly about a dollar in labor operation costs to manage each plant in a traditionally farmed vineyard of roughly about 1,300 plants per acre on the North Coast now,” Kurtural said. “The no-touch plants are costing us about 7 cents in labor operations costs.”
“The biggest expense is pruning, after that we go through what they call trunk suckering, which is also done mechanically here, and after that they will do shoot removal to open up the canopy. That's also done mechanically. After that, if there's need, they will do leaf removal, that's also done mechanically. And one last resort, if there's too much crop here, they will shake off excess berries with a harvester.”
The conventional system yields up to 5 to 6 tons per acre whereas the mechanized vineyard yields 7 to 8 tons per acre.
“These clusters set far fewer berries than a traditionally managed vineyard, but the berry size is also very small, which is what the winemakers like,” he said.
During harvest, grapes picked by machine are sorted on board the harvester so they go into the winery in uniform sizes, whereas hand-harvested grapes have to be sorted on a tray before they are put into the press tank.
“We made wines from these last year and compared to our traditionally farmed vineyards. Until we tell people what it is, they cannot distinguish the quality of the fruit or the wine.”
Weed and pest management
John Roncoroni, UCCE weed science farm advisor in Napa County, discussed options for weed control among young grape vines.
In the past, many vineyards were fumigated before planting for disease control, but it also provided weed control for young vines.
“With the loss of most fumigants for use in vineyards, hand-weeding was often used to accomplish this task,” Roncoroni said. “Increased costs and decreased labor force have made hand weeding impractical. Mechanical cultivation, at this point, is too imprecise – either leaving weeds close to young vines or causing damage by being too close.”
Covers on young vines allow the use of many post-emergence herbicides to control weeds, but Roncoroni cautioned that application of post-emergence herbicides on vines that aren't protected by mature bark may damage or even kill the vine.
“Herbicide use on vines less than 3 years old is a risky endeavor,” Roncoroni said. “Follow all label requirements, paying special attention to soil and irrigation recommendations.”
Lynn Wunderlich, UC Cooperative Extension advisor for the Central Sierra, and Franz Niederholzer, UC Cooperative Extension advisor for Colusa, Sutter and Yuba counties, demonstrated how to calibrate sprayers and to get uniform coverage when spraying fungicides.
In 2016, UC Davis researchers identified the three-cornered alfalfa hopper, Spissistilus festinus, as a vector of grapevine red blotch virus. Cindy Preto, a Ph.D candidate in the UC Davis Department of Entomology who is assisting UC scientists studying the three-cornered alfalfa hopper's biology and host plants, provided an update on their research.
Araujo, the viticulture consultant, said he and his colleagues value the university's research. “Napa Valley is a place where quality is paramount yet more and more we have labor shortage, we have inflation, production costs are going up,” he said. “Finding a way to get maximum quality along with yield levels that will pay for the increasing costs of production is the only way we'll be sustainable now and in the future.”
Throughout Humboldt and Del Norte counties, the UC Master Food Preserver Program is actively engaging with tribal members. In fact, the UC Master Food Preserver volunteers have been “jamming it up” since 2017 with over 15 workshops for tribal community members.
Kella Roberts, of United Indian Health Services, has helped more than 280 community members improve their health and wellness - one jar, one dehydrator, one freezer bag at a time. Their workshops support existing efforts in the tribal communities to empower individuals, families, tribes, and the community to make healthy choices.
Roberts, along with her fellow UC Master Food Preserver volunteers, deserve recognition for coordinating and delivering food preservation classes to new audiences. They've adopted methods to help those with diabetes by limiting the sugar in recipes, and taught four workshops on ginger zucchini orange marmalade and strawberry jam using pectin.
Over 130 youth and adults across four workshops went through the hands-on process of mashing and drying berries to make strawberry and beet fruit leather.
Roberts kept the crunch going by teaching workshops on kosher dills, pickled green beans and pickled beets. Kale chips were another crunchy treat with healthful benefits that were highlighted at a Hands on Health Conference workshop. Other healthy food preservation workshops included smooth applesauce and fruit dehydration.
To increase participation, these workshops were held at sites where tribal members already meet and live, including the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria, Big Lagoon Rancheria, Blue Lake Rancheria, Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria, Elk Valley Rancheria, Resighini Rancheria, Wiyot Tribe, Tolowa Dee-Ni' Nation, and the Yurok Reservation.
Find a UC Master Food Preserver Program near you to get involved in sharing home food preservation techniques with your community. The program uses research-based methods to deliver home food preservation methods to Californians.
Slugs, snails, ants, aphids, spider mites and inclement weather conspire against strawberry growers harvesting perfect red berries to sell.
“Farming is hard work,” said Fam Lee, as she pulled a weed from a row of strawberry plants. Lee and her husband Nathan Punh are among about 60 Mien farmers in the Sacramento area who call on Margaret Lloyd, a UC Cooperative Extension advisor, for farming advice.
“Although we are not organic farmers, we always want to go with organic,” said Lee. “For example, we have slugs and ants, I asked Margaret if it's okay to put organic slug bait around the plant as long as it doesn't touch the berry. She said that's the best way to do. We work closely with our extension staff.”
In the Sacramento area, many of the Mien-owned farms are husband and wife teams. The typical couple farms an acre or two themselves, picking berries to sell the same day at a roadside stand, which provides the family's primary source of income.
“Many of them grew up on farms in Thailand or Laos growing vegetables or growing rice or soybeans,” said Lloyd, who serves small-scale farmers in Sacramento, Solano and Yolo counties. “A lot of them come from farming backgrounds so when they came to this country, they also sought out an agrarian lifestyle.”
Some Mien growers had never seen a strawberry before arriving in California, but chose the high-value crop to maximize returns on their small plots of land.
To help Mien growers develop successful strawberry farms, Lloyd updates them on regulations and shares growing tips at an annual extension meeting, visits them at their farms, and records videos demonstrating how to do things such as using compost to fertilize the crop.
“Because of language barriers, coming out to the farm regularly is a big part of the job,” said Lloyd, who partners with staff from the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) to assist Mien farmers.
“Once we're on the farm, we can communicate in-person more easily,” she said. “Often times it involves pest identification, so I'll show them how to use a hand lens and how to identify spider mites, aphids and lygus bugs, for example.”
“A lot of them have children who speak English fluently so if they don't speak English fluently, sometimes the children come out and help.”
For the past five years, Lee and Punh have been growing and selling strawberries at a farm stand on Bond Road, between Bader and Bradshaw, in Sacramento. They grow Albion, Chandler, Santa Rosa and Seascape – sweet, delicate varieties, some of which aren't found in supermarkets because the berries don't store and ship as well. They typically begin harvesting berries at the end of March and pick through July or August, depending on the weather. This year, the first berries were ruined by spring rain and frost.
Savvy consumers will ask for certain varieties by name, Lloyd said. “Chandler is well-loved by consumers for its delicate flesh and sweet flavor. Albion produces larger berries that are also very tasty.”
Because berries sold at the roadside stands are picked fresh daily, the farmers wait until berries are perfectly ripe before picking them.
Monday through Saturday, Lee begins harvesting her strawberries by hand at the break of dawn.
“We start at 5:45, the minute we can see, and we pick until 8 o'clock. That's our goal,” Lee said. “By 8:30, we want to open our stand and we sell until all the berries run out.”
Lee's parents often drive up from Alameda to help pick berries.
To extend the farm stand season, some Mien farmers supplement the strawberries with other berries, strawberry jam and vegetables. They grow blueberries and blackberries, tomatoes, peppers and green beans and sometimes specialty vegetables such as bittermelon.
“Growing strawberries isn't easy, but it's enjoyable work,” Lee said.
Lloyd has updated a map showing locations of about 60 strawberry stands in the Sacramento area at http://bit.ly/strawberrystands.
When school's out, many children who live in poverty no longer eat nutritious meals like they do during school as part of the free and reduced-cost school lunch program.
UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) in Sacramento County has joined a coalition to promote the summer meals program, which is aiming to serve one million meals during summer 2018.
The coalition was formed by State Sen. Richard Pan, who invited Sacramento students to the State Capitol for a picnic May 22 launching the “Million Meals Summer.”
“In Sacramento County, on average 1.9 million free or reduced-price lunches are served each month while school is in session,” said Sen. Pan. “For so many of these children, school meals are their primary source of nutrition.”
In the summertime, the number of lunches served drops to less than 10 percent of the school-year number.
“Over the last couple of years, my office has worked with a growing number of organizations to help close the gap of child nutrition,” Sen. Pan said.
At the picnic, Sen. Pan, a pediatrician, reminded the children that eating healthy through the summer will get them ready to learn when school starts again.
Sen. Pan said Kim Frinzel, associate director of the California Department of Education nutrition services division, is leading the effort to set up sufficient meal sites and encourage children to attend.
“You get a great meal,” Frinzel told the students. “You get to hang out with your friends. And you get to participate in fun activities. Clap if you will help us serve a million meals.”
Vanessa Kenyon, EFNEP program supervisor for Sacramento and San Joaquin counties, said EFNEP will provide nutrition education training for Samuel Merritt University nurses-in-training.
“Summer meals are provided at 140 sites in Sacramento County. If the children stick around after eating, they can take part in enrichment programs. The student nurses will fulfill a portion of their service hours by sharing nutrition education resources and activities at the meal sites,” Kenyon said.
The UC EFNEP program, which serves 24 counties in California, assists limited-resource families gain the knowledge and skills to choose nutritionally sound diets and improve well-being.
The United Way California Capital Region heads the coalition of community, business and state partners supporting the Million Meals Summer in Sacramento County.
Spring is here, and oftentimes the busiest season of the year for gardeners to plant edibles with dreams of ripe tomatoes and rows of juicy strawberries. But what about the “non” gardeners, you know the people who struggle to keep a cactus alive? Is there hope for a plentiful harvest for those self-identified terrible gardeners? Absolutely.
Food gardening takes some work, but if you have the determination and are willing to get your hands dirty, UC Master Gardener Program volunteers are eager to help you find success. Across almost every county in California there are passionate UC Master Gardener volunteers eager to turn your dreams of a bountiful summer harvest into a reality.
Sonoma County finds success with “Food Gardening Specialists”
The UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County has spent almost a decade perfecting the art of teaching best practices for food gardening. They have found a winning formula for food gardening workshops that focus on hands-on learning and interactive demonstrations in the garden. A group of UC Master Gardener volunteers with a passion for growing edible plants joined forces and started a project aptly named “Food Gardening Specialist.”
Food Gardening Specialists receive initial training in food gardening with curriculum developed by UC Agriculture & Natural Resources experts. After initial training, volunteers continue to grow their food gardening skills with monthly speakers, discussions groups and field trips. These highly skilled and trained volunteers teach food gardening at community or demonstrations gardens across Sonoma County, where anyone is welcome to attend.
Understanding the need to expand reach in Sonoma County, the project identified four key gardens to engage more diverse communities. Garden “captains” build relationships within these gardens, advising home gardeners and developing gardening workshops that are relevant to their community's needs. One of the core gardens provides year-round fresh produce to a number local food banks and programs that feed the hungry.
Stephanie Wrightson: Sonoma County Volunteer of the Year
A shining example of a dedicated Food Gardening Specialist is Stephanie Wrightson, who recently was awarded Sonoma County's Board of Supervisors “Volunteer of the Year” award. Wrightson has been a UC Master Gardener volunteer since 2010 and a member of the Food Gardening Specialist project since 2011.
Wrightson has donated more than 3,200 hours to the UC Master Gardener Program, most revolve around food gardening outreach.
“We put on public food gardening workshops, with Spanish translators, and demonstrate sustainable best practices in the garden ... invaluable. We interact, consult, advise. We learn from each other,” Wrightson said. “Food Gardening Specialists share science-based and sustainable food gardening information with garden visitors and workshop attendees. The gardens have quickly become a social hub in the neighborhood, bringing the community closer together.”
It is clear that Wrightson's role doesn't stop at the garden's gate. Wrightson was essential in shaping the vision of the Food Gardening Specialist project while serving on its steering committee and as a project leader. She manages efforts to keep all of the food gardening content updated, posted online or shared on its social media channels. Wrightson also works closely with the translation team to identify the most popular food gardening topics to make them available in Spanish.
“Stephanie brings such an attention to detail and focus on everything she engages in; we are so grateful to have such a talented UC Master Gardener as part of our organization,” said Mimi Enright, program manager for the UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County.
Where is food grown in your community?
Do you grow your own food or get homegrown food from a neighbor who gardens? Is there a community garden nearby, or a farmers market with locally grown fruits and vegetables?
“It's becoming more important to understand where our food comes from and to make sure everyone knows how to enjoy its benefits,” said Missy Gable, statewide director for the UC Master Gardener Program.
The UC Master Gardener Program provides the public with research-based information about food gardening, home horticulture, sustainable landscapes, and pest management practices. It is administered locally by UC Cooperative Extension offices that are the principal outreach and public service arms of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. If you are interested in learning more about food gardening or would like to connect with your local UC Master Gardener Program visit, mg.ucanr.edu.
Trusted UC Food Gardening Resources:
- Vegetable Gardening Basics (UC ANR Publications 8059)
- Food Safety in your Home Vegetable Garden (UC ANR Publication 8366)
- Growing Tomatoes in the Home Garden ( UC ANR Publications 8159)
- California Garden Web (UC Master Gardener Program)
- The California Backyard Orchard (UC Master Gardener Program)
- Food Gardening (UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County)
- Food Gardening with Less Water Resources (UC Master Gardener Program of Sonoma County)