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New System Warns Grapegrowers

Mobile app from WSU tracks cold weather threats to vineyards

by Peter Mitham
Walla Walla Solar
This detail depicts solar radiation throughout the past day at the Walla Walla station.

Prosser, Wash. -- Grapegrowers are often encouraged to see their vineyards from the vine’s perspective rather than the results they’re trying to achieve. This is especially true where grape maturity and vine health are concerned, and a new application from Washington State University promises to give growers better insight into how vines are experiencing winter weather.

Described as “a grape cold-damage decision-aid tool,” the application correlates climate data from WSU’s network of 133 weather stations located primarily in Eastern Washington (collectively known as AgWeatherNet) with grape cold hardiness data the university collects weekly during the winter. (The latter is funded by industry through the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, Washington Wine Industry Foundation and the Washington State Concord Grape Research Council.)

Ag Weather Net
Each of the numbers indicates a weather station. Users can click the site nearest their location for detailed current weather information.

Drawn from vineyards managed by the university and commercial growers in the Prosser area, the cold hardiness data tracks thresholds for various levels of cold damage to vines. “Any time that it looks like the temperature was lower than what we said would cause X-amount of damage, it would come up as, basically, a flash,” WSU Professor Markus Keller explained to Wines & Vines. “If the grower follows that regularly, it alerts that some or a lot of damage has probably occurred at their site, and they should probably do something about it.”

Keller noted that an alert doesn’t mean growers will take action, but it does suggest when it might be prudent to consider adjusting vineyard management practices. This streamlines the decision-making process, telling growers action is needed based on local conditions rather than leaving them to weigh local factors into pruning and retraining decisions.

“It does not prevent growers from going out and sampling buds themselves, of course, but it helps alert them to the fact that they should go out and maybe take some samples,” Keller said.

The new application debuted at the start of February, and so it wasn’t available to alert growers to potential damage during the blast of cold weather that hit Eastern Washington in December. Dr. Gary Grove, a professor with WSU Extension and director of AgWeatherNet, said the majority of Washington State vineyards were unscathed during that event, but areas such as Walla Walla probably saw some damage. The alert would have been able to suggest the degree of the damage, and what action to take.

He said cold damage once required him to retrain his own 3-acre vineyard near Prosser, a decision that would have been easier to make with the new application. “I had to go out and do a lot of sampling before I made that decision to retrain,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to go out and do the sampling unless I absolutely had to. So in that regard, it’s the first step in a huge decision—telling you, yeah, you’d better go out and take a look at this.”

Grove expects cold damage alerts to be incorporated as part of the new AgAlertz service developed by Yakima-based 4Quarters Inc. by next winter. AgAlertz pushes weather information and alerts out to vineyard managers and growers via e-mail, text messages and voice mail. Grove said the number of users has risen steadily since the service launched in February.

William Corsi, technical coordinator for AgWeatherNet, said the delivery of information to growers via mobile devices reflects the popularity of hand-held devices. Growers may make vineyard management decisions in the office, but delivering the data to their mobile devices helps them—and their consultants—to keep track of the information in case immediate action is required. It also makes working arrangements more flexible.

“The industry is very mobile—they’re not just sitting at the computer working,” Corsi said. “The whole point of the mobile app was to get the information that they need to their fingertips the easiest way possible.”
Complementing the cold damage app and AgAlertz service, the university has launched a new weather information site designed for viewing on mobile devices from cell phones to iPhones.

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