Growing & Winemaking

 

Grapegrower Interview: PAUL JOHNSON

March 2010
 
by Laurie Daniel
 
 

As general manager of J & L Farms, Paul Johnson farms about 3,000 acres of vineyards in Monterey County, Calif. Two large vineyards in the southern part of the county—San Lucas Vineyards and Paris Valley Ranch, where the vines are set up for substantial mechanization—account for much of that acreage. The company also farms La Estancia in the Santa Lucia Highlands, where more hand labor is the norm.

Johnson, a communications major at the University of California, Santa Barbara, went into agricultural lending after graduating in 2003. Two years ago, he joined J & L Farms, which was founded in the mid-1970s by his father, Phil Johnson, and another longtime Monterey grower, Butch Lindley.

Wines & Vines: You are testing an Oxbo vineyard mechanization system on about 300 acres of Paris Valley Ranch. What are the advantages of this system?

Paul Johnson:
There are several advantages that the Oxbo system provides when compared to traditional manual labor. When I refer to the Oxbo system, I am referring to the two-row, tow-behind tool carrier used to prune, shoot-thin, leaf-thin and fruit-thin. There are three equipment operators for the job: one driving the tractor and two sitting on the trailer operating the equipment. This allows the two in the back to focus solely on the project at hand (pruning, shoot-thinning, etc.) This greatly improves the quality and precision of the work as compared to a one-man job, where the tractor driver is also guiding the equipment.

First, the system is less expensive when compared to traditional labor crews doing the same work. For instance, the numbers I have for pruning with the Oxbo system come to 15 cents per vine. This includes the cost of the equipment, supplies and labor. I figure manual-labor pruning costs for Chardonnay at 35 to 40 cents. Similar savings can be expected for the shoot-thinning and fruit-thinning passes. While the leaf-thinning pass is an added bonus, it is no more efficient than other mechanized leaf-thinners on the market, which many farming operations already employ.

Second, a more consistent yield can be expected. The beauty of mechanized farming is that you start by over-cropping and gradually bring the vine into balance as you observe the number of clusters (shoot-thinning pass), then the quality of set and sizing of the berries (fruit-thinning pass). This is different from using a manual labor crew, where you prune and shoot-thin, hoping that you don’t have to come in for a final fruit-thinning pass.  This works fairly well in years with a good set. However, you can leave yourself short in years when set and/or berry sizing does not pan out.

Third, fewer bodies in the vineyard equate to less opportunity for injuries.

W&V:
Are there any drawbacks to the Oxbo system?

Johnson: There are a few items that should be kept in mind for those considering the Oxbo system. First, there is a critical acreage that you need to have the system pencil out. I understand that 300 acres is about the most efficient way to utilize the equipment. Any more, and you may not be able to shoot-thin all the acres within the optimal timeframe. Any less than 200 acres, and the cost of the equipment may not be justifiable.

When using mechanized equipment, it is critical that you are able to run the equipment at the ideal growth stage of the vine. Otherwise, you may need to bring in a crew for a touch-up pass, which severely compromises its cost effectiveness. It helps to split up the acreage between varieties that progress at varying rates throughout the year, so when you finish a task in one variety, the other is just coming into the same growth stage.

Second, the system still has some hurdles to overcome pertaining to perceptions of quality. I personally overcame this perception when a few of the wineries I deal with confirmed that they have been purchasing mechanically farmed grapes for years now, and are satisfied with the resulting wine. However, I would not convert acreage from a perfectly trained VSP canopy to a mechanically farmed canopy unless you have specific interest from a buyer.

W&V: You’re also using a Clemens under-vine weeder. What are the benefits of using this machine?

Johnson: The Clemens is basically a blade that cuts weeds about an inch or two underground. It has a sensor that opens the blade when passing by a vine or post. We are using this equipment simply to reduce our herbicide costs, which we estimate to be about $50 per acre. To minimize weeds accumulating around vines and posts, we alternate the direction that we travel down each row.

Even with these measures, there are some weeds that persist. These we hit with a spot sprayer over the summer. WeedSeeker technology has chlorophyll sensors that trigger the sprayer. This way we are only spraying where weeds are detected, which saves us 80% to 90% on herbicide materials. While the vineyard is not as pretty as it might be with traditional weed spraying, it improves the bottom line and also reduces the amount of chemicals we are spraying on the vineyard without compromising quality.

W&V: You use an ON-Target electrostatic sprayer. What are the benefits of this versus other sprayers?

Johnson: I am a big fan of ON-Target sprayers. Basically, these sprayers charge the water molecules coming out of the sprayer, so they are attracted to the plant surface. Because the spray is attracted to the vine, there is less drift. Furthermore, since the water particles all have the same electric charge, they repel each other, which makes for a more uniform distribution on the plant surface.

The sprayers allow us to use 20-30 gallons of water per acre, as opposed to 40-50 or more with non-electrostatic sprayers, and minimum label rates to apply fungicides and miticides with effective results. This saves us both in costs of materials and time spent refilling the tanks.

W&V: You’re working with the Central Coast Vineyard Team, and the Paris Valley Vineyard is certified under the group’s Sustainability in Practice (SIP) program. How does all this vineyard equipment help you in practicing sustainable viticulture?

Johnson: Staying on the cutting edge of technology is critical to the sustainability model. It is environmentally friendly in that we are often able to use lower amounts of che micals in a more precise application. It is socially equitable in that we are often improving safety in the vineyard. It is economically friendly in that the vineyard investors reap the rewards of improved operational efficiency and lower material costs. Indeed, the classic win-win-win scenario.


Mechanization limited in La Estancia vineyard
 

 
While there’s a fair amount of mechanized farming at San Lucas Vineyards and Paris Valley Ranch in southern Monterey County, the farming at La Estancia in the Santa Lucia Highlands involves much more hand labor, because the grapes are going into more expensive wines. But Paul Johnson of J & L Farms, which farms all three vineyards, says some equipment still has a place in a high-end vineyard.

The 240-acre La Estancia, which is next to Gary Franscioni’s Rosella’s Vineyard, is planted to Pinot Noir (about 50%), Chardonnay (40%) and Riesling (10%). The vineyard, which Johnson says was planted in the old-style California sprawl, is undergoing replanting with a vertical shoot positioning (VSP) trellis.

Although Johnson says, “I don’t see fully mechanized farming being adopted” at La Estancia, he plans to start using some mechanical pre-pruning once the new plantings get a couple of years older.

He adds that he can’t use the Clemens under-vine weeder at La Estancia, because the vineyard is on a slope, and the Clemens blade digs in too deep unless the equipment is used on a flat site. However, he uses the ON-Target electrostatic sprayer at La Estancia. “We use the sprayers everywhere,” he says.

L.D.

 

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006. To contact her or comment on this article, e-mail edit@winesandvines.com.

 

 
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