Oct 25, 2023Deterring wildlife: Texas vineyard controls fruit loss
Deep in the heart of the Texas Hill Country in Fredericksburg, Texas, Heritage Vineyard uses trapping and other methods to control wildlife damage.
Most of the animal damage and fruit loss is from raccoons and porcupines, which grab the fruit on the bottom of clusters and quickly strip rows of grapes.
“It’s something that’s a constant fight for us,” said Tyler Buddemeyer, winemaker and vineyard manager. “We deal with it every year and I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to change about it. So, we just do what works best for us.”
In the past, the vineyard and winery relocated animals through trapping. However, the wildlife would quickly return, sometimes faster than the trapper. A friend with a .22 caliber rifle walking through vineyard rows at night scoping for pests helps curb populations.
High fences control deer while netting helps discourage birds and protect the fruit from hail. Rodent carcasses left in the vineyards attract vultures. Smaller birds can’t easily distinguish vultures from predator hawks, so they can discourage smaller birds and the damage they can cause to fruit. This pest control method has cut down on bird issues since 2021, when birds consumed half of a 2-acre vineyard.
While not as big a problem as porcupines and raccoons, jackrabbits don’t damage the fruit as much as chew into irrigation lines, causing leaks. Armadillos burrow large holes and can become larger problems during dry years when they search for water sources.
The Texas Heritage Vineyard owners are Susan and Billy Johnson. She retired from a corporate insurance position and he is an insurance agent in Fredericksburg. Before taking the plunge in establishing the business, the couple grew grapes on a one-acre test vineyard at their home. Commercial acreage began with two acres, later expanding to 15 acres. The first vines went into the ground in 2015, with harvest starting in 2016 and 2017.
Varieties include Alicante Bouschet, Malbec, Tempranillo, Souzao, Tannat and Viognier for producing red, white, rose and estate wines. With a theme of honoring Texas, Billy and Susan Johnson built a vineyard, winery and tasting room operation that could be passed down to future generations.
Recent years have been abnormally dry in parts of Texas, accompanied by weeks of triple-digit temperatures, which stresses vines. Texas Heritage maintains above-ground and drip irrigation, which runs through each row, ensuring vines receive adequate water. The irrigation has helped eliminate dehydration, also known as raisining, a common cause of berry shrivel.
Water sensors gauge soil moisture throughout the vineyard and are regularly checked. An early leaf pull allows limited exposure to sunlight, training berries to become used to less intense but direct sunlight, which helps with plant growth.
While insect pressure has challenged other vineyards this year, Texas Heritage has mostly escaped pest and disease issues.
The vineyard sprayed just once, because major pests including glassy-winged sharpshooters, grasshoppers and berry moths weren’t overly overabundant.
When Buddemeyer was on vacation during a period of heavy rainfall, Carleton Turner, a friend and owner of Gotneaux Creek Vineyard in nearby London, Texas, sprayed oxidate, an organic peroxide, on the grapes to kill pests and fungus. When Buddemeyer returned, he sprayed systemic product on the grapes.
A constant battle, weeds are controlled by clearing below the vines. The farm used to till below the vines, but that increases the chances of damaging the vines. A large swath on either side of the rows also increased erosion of soil that would’ve been prevented by grass roots. Cutting smaller swaths with equipment modified with spray heads that apply herbicides closer to plant roots helped control weeds, including Johnson grass, a big issue in the region.
To counter higher input costs and smaller supplies, Texas Heritage works with a vineyard consultant who develops season plans, including spray schedules. While many adjustments are required during the season, the planning provides options and helps protect grapes against powdery mildew and other diseases and insects.
Because of Fredericksburg’s scarce affordable housing, growers must foot all costs of sourcing migrant workers, including housing and transportation for grocery shopping and errands.
“There’s not a lot of people, and typically, we must overpay help,” Buddemeyer said.
Texas Heritage’s skeleton crew, which includes a retired basketball coach, along with company owners and an intern, do the best they can to harvest the grapes. Volunteers, mostly retirees involved in the company’s wine club, help hand-pick about a third of the vineyard, and mechanical harvesting takes the rest.
Slate Theory, a neighboring winery, provides mechanical harvesters, which also diverts poor fruit from entering the winery. The Pellenc America harvester navigates and autocorrects throughout the rows better than older machinery, Buddemeyer said.
The vineyard offers manufacturing tours, allowing volunteers to view the grape stamping and fermenting process. Participants can discover how grapes taste before fermentation and learn about the growing process.
To be successful, Buddemeyer recommends those considering growing winegrapes to take community college winegrape courses. Meeting established growers also can help new growers solve problems. Buddemeyer and Susan Johnson took the courses.
“One of the largest tools I’ve used is finding as many growers around you as possible, as they are probably experiencing some of the exact same challenges you are,” Buddemeyer said. “Seeing how they deal with them and seeing what does and doesn’t work will help you.”
— Doug Ohlemeier, assistant editor