Growing & Winemaking


Checklist for Conservation

January 2009
by Nick Frey
    Conservation Checklist--Fuel

  • Mowing permanent cover crops
  • Multi-row sprayers to reduce passes
  • Electrostatic sprayers to reduce water volumes
  • Use disease models to reduce spray applications
  • Cellular or radio communications to reduce travel
  • Use an ATV on the ranch instead of a pickup
  • Solar power for filter and valve operators, gate openers and pumps
Early this year fuel prices reached new highs, a dry spring heightened concerns about water supplies, and materials costs for vineyards had nearly doubled for some inputs. These trends make resource conservation even more important for grapegrowers. Fortunately, growers have a number of options available to them to conserve resources, save money and still produce a high-quality grape crop.

Conservation of fuel

Many growers have permanent cover crops, and mow instead of till. For those who are still incorporating cover crops each year, a switch to mowing can save fuel and increase soil organic matter. Whether mowing, tilling or spraying, if possible, match the horsepower of the tractor to the task. Herbicide application with an ATV rather than a 35-hp tractor can provide significant fuel savings. Using a Weed Seeker for follow-up treatment can save fuel and herbicide. Multi-row sprayers can cut passes, and electrostatic sprayers can reduce water and pesticide volumes. Disease models can help time spray applications, and perhaps save one or more applications in some years.

Alternative text
Reducing the use of tractors and ATVs in the vineyard creates fuel savings.
Other energy-saving applications include radio and cellular communications to cut down on travel, use of an ATV on the ranch rather than a pickup, solar powered filter and valve operators, gate openers and potentially, irrigation pumps. On-farm housing for supervisors and vineyard employees reduces the costs of commuting.

Most Sonoma County growers use drip irrigation, but especially on hillside vineyards, pressure-compensating emitters can save water. Every vineyard should check emitter uniformity and measure water flow to ensure irrigation quantities are as planned. Monitoring soil and plant water status, especially before initiating irrigation, are critical. Initiating irrigation earlier than necessary will lead to larger vine leaf areas and greater water consumption throughout the season. (Avoiding a hedging operation through effective irrigation management also can save fuel.)

    Conservation Checklist--Water

  • Pressure compensating emitters and flow meters
  • Monitor soil and plant water status
  • Short, frequent irrigations
  • Nighttime irrigation
  • Manage sprinkler use to minimize water use
Deficit irrigation, or irrigation based upon evapotranspiration models, also conserves water. Perhaps the greatest savings can be achieved by short, frequent irrigations. If root depth in the shallow soils is 2 feet, then irrigating for eight hours will waste water that percolates out of the root zone. Three irrigations per week for 2 hours may save water and produce a better crop than irrigating eight hours once per week. Nighttime irrigation, or at least avoiding irrigation during the middle of the day, can reduce evaporative losses.

If sprinklers are used for frost protection or heat suppression, turning off the system as soon as the ice melts, or turning it on at a higher threshold temperature for heat suppression, can save water. Heat suppression for an hour and then shutting off for an hour can save water and still reduce canopy temperatures. Micro-sprinklers reduce water use compared to impact sprinklers.

Materials reduction and recycling

Purchasing pesticides and fertilizers in bulk can reduce packaging. Pesticide containers can be triple-rinsed and recycled. Recycling drip tube, steel stakes and wire saves materials and money when replanting a vineyard. When developing a vineyard, keeping 6- or 8-foot rows will reduce materials use compared to 4-foot rows.

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) relies on monitoring of pest and predator populations, and only treating when economic damage is likely to result. Good monitoring can avoid a spray application or allow growers to target only the pest hot spots for treatment. Today, sprayers and fertilizer applicators can be controlled using GPS to vary rates across the vineyard to match applications with pest presence or soil fertility needs. And fertilization rates should be based upon soil or petiole analyses.

    Conservation Checklist-- Materials & Recycling

  • Purchase pesticides and fertilizer in bulk
  • Recycle pesticide containers and drip hose
  • Recycle steel stakes and wire
  • IPM to minimize pesticide applications
  • Target only infested areas
  • GPS-controlled applications of pesticides and fertilizers
  • Fertilize based upon soil and petiole analyses
  • Alternatives to sulfur dust for powdery mildew control
  • Alternatives to sulfur dust for powdery mildew control
  • Hydrostatic sprayers to improve coverage
Reduced materials handling for powdery mildew prevention can be accomplished by switching from 10 pounds of sulfur dust every 7--10 days to a few ounces of fungicide in a 21-day spray application. Hydrostatic sprayers can provide good coverage with lower quantities of water.

The tradeoffs

Vineyard operations are complex and sometimes require tradeoffs when conservation measures are adopted. Biodiesel can reduce emissions and particulate matter, but it also has a higher cost and lower energy content. Engine warranties may be lost at certain biodiesel contents. Biofuel production also requires energy use, but biofuels are renewable energy sources.

Organic grape production also has tradeoffs. In-row weed control requires tillage, propane for weed burn down or multiple applications of a contact herbicide. All increase fuel consumption compared to conventional weed control using an ATV and a synthetic herbicide. Organic inputs are often bulky--e.g., compost and rock phosphate to meet soil fertility needs, thereby increasing transportation and application costs. Organic production decreases the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but it may increase the carbon footprint for the vineyard.

Going green in the vineyard

Technologies exist to lower fuel use and conserve water in vineyards. Different growers will make different choices as they try to conserve fuel, water or materials. And they will encounter tradeoffs for every decision: costs and return of investment, environmental impacts and personal values. But conservation needs to be an important management objective if we are to sustain grapegrowing in Sonoma County and throughout the country.

Nick Frey is president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. To contact Frey or comment on this article, e-mail
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