Oct 15, 2021California Central Coast vineyard transitioning to organic production
The transition to organic winegrape growing can be seen as a high-risk process, and growers often wonder if positive results published by academic researchers will actually translate to their bottom lines once implemented in their vineyards.
In order to address the concerns about the perceived gap between research and economic success, telling stories which share the lessons learned by people such as Greg Gonzalez, who is still in the process of transitioning from conventional to organic farming, is a good way to move the industry forward.
Greg has been working for 11 years at Scheid Vineyards, located in the California Central Coast, where he is now the Director of Vineyard Operations. In addition to his current position, Greg sat on the Vineyard Team’s board of directors for over three years and is now part of the California Association of Wine Grape Growers’ board.
Scheid Vineyards includes 11 estate vineyards, totaling about 3,200 acres spanned across 70 miles of what Greg likes to call “John Steinbeck country” – the Salinas Valley. All of the estates are taking an integrated approach, following the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA)’s guidelines, with half of them also adhering to the “Sustainability In Practice” (SIP) certification. Scheid Vineyards’ first 80 organic acres were certified organic in 2020 and roughly an additional 500 acres are now starting their first year of conversion. The company’s goal is to have all their estates certified organic by 2025, which will make Scheid Vineyards one of the largest California certified organic wine grape growers.
During our conversation, Greg shared his view on the importance of the vineyard crew’s role in an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program, on the underestimation of their ability to incorporate new technologies, and addressed misconceptions about the cost of transitioning to organic.
Is it the right time to transition to organic grape growing?
“Farmers in general are busy farming. It’s really hard to change some practices unless there’s an immediate return on it because the risk of farming is so great,” emphasizes Greg. But he believes that two of the main drivers of the adoption of more sustainable farming practices, namely the availability of efficient alternatives and consumer demand, have reached a point that allows farmers to start the transition with confidence. “Technologies and advancements in research have really started to come of age. There are alternatives now that weren’t readily available 30 years ago.”
But while we focus a lot on what farmers are doing, it is easy to forget that consumer demand is one of the ultimate drivers. Greg observes that, “As society changes, it drives how we’re producing things. A farmer can only produce food if somebody is there to buy it. So, I think sustainability is just an awakening of society, understanding that we need to be more aware of what we’re demanding.”
The industry’s mindset can be a bit risk averse and growers who have the resources to implement operational improvement processes often serve as standard bearers. “At Scheid Vineyards, one of our values is to look for continuous improvement,” he explains. “We’ve put metrics in place that allow us to measure our progress. The environmental sustainability aspect and some practices, like the reporting and georeferenced monitoring, are things that have been embedded in our company for a long time but they’ve never been things that actually got labeled. So when the certification appeared, we were already complying with a lot of the requirements. Now, I see getting the organic certification as just being the next step for us.”
How the pest pressure in the Salinas Valley differs from other winegrape growing areas
When asked about vine health issues in the Salinas Valley, he comments that, “Our geography is interesting because the Salinas Valley has a multi-crop system. I think upwards of a third of the world’s leafy green vegetables come from the area. We have pest pressures that might not be as common in a vineyard specific area.”
Greg explains that, “Powdery mildew is our number one pest, although it lessens as we go south and get into the hotter climates of the Salinas Valley.”
He points out that late-season spider mite pressure is specific to grape growers in the Salinas Valley, and is the second most important pest they have to deal with. “As we get closer to harvest and vegetable and strawberry row croppers get into their cropping rotations, the Salinas Valley can become very dusty, which creates favorable conditions for the development of spider mites. So you have to be really on your game in terms of dust control.”
The other major pest for grapevines in California is the vine mealybug, which transmits the leaf roll virus. Greg thinks that by taking a collective approach it is a manageable issue. “We have actually organized neighborhoods within the county and the adjacent growers are working together to make sure that they’re coordinating treatments, specifically mating disruption.”
He explains that, “What we found being the most impactful is just being clean, making sure that you’re not transmitting the vector of the virus, via equipment for example. California has done a really good job of coming together with the different grape-growing associations and all the campuses of the University of California to really work together and create control strategies.”
Scheid vineyards has been working with Kent Daane on the use of pheromone traps to monitor vine mealybugs, and they are planning on exploring the use of augmented biological control release as part of their vine mealybug integrated management plan.
Vineyard crew is the best asset for a successful IPM program
Greg states that a core component to having a strong IPM program is good monitoring of the vineyard. “You need your pulse. In a conventional setting, scouting used to be done once a week on a set calendar. In IPM, it needs to be done at a higher frequency so that you can catch potential problems to avoid corrective action. It’s a preventative method opposed to a reactionary method.”
His background in geographic information systems (GIS) taught him the importance of knowing exactly when and where an issue is occurring as well as the extent and magnitude of what’s going on. For him it means, “Being able to collect geolocalized human observations on the fly, or use remote sensing such as continuous soil moisture probes, to know what’s happening in the vineyard almost in real time and start tightening up those efficiencies.”
Greg insists on the importance of the vineyard crew’s help in this process and is grateful for his team. “There are a lot of nuances on how plants express themselves, and human observation and understanding is extremely important. That is why farmers go to such lengths to keep the same people around. We’ve been extremely lucky in this sense. We’ve had employees who have been here for 20 years, tending the same vines. So they have a unique ability to detect when the vines are expressing something.”
To industry outsiders, Greg’s GIS background may appear to make him unusually technologically adoptive, but he is eager to counter misconceptions about farmworkers willingness to accept new technologies. “I’ve realized the misconception of the field crew’s ability to accept technologies. Most of them want to keep up with the generation of their kids: they text from their smartphones, check Facebook on their break… When I brought the technology in and started making my own observations on my phone, the vineyard crew quickly started to ask me what I was doing and if they could do it themselves as well. Now we have more and more people who are wanting to collect observations to make their jobs more efficient, higher-paying, and just have better conditions at the end of the day.”
After learning more about several Agtech companies, Greg and his team started to move their IPM to the digital world with the Salinas based company Heavy connect. “We started working with them to navigate the inefficiency of the paper sheets and all of the traditional methods that we used and tried to find ways to improve them. Then, we started using a mobile app and it immediately got the attention of our farm managers and PCAs. Some previously very long and uncertain processes now get dealt with within hours.”
Greg believes that this improved communication allows for early detection of issues, timely reactions, and is the basis of an effective IPM program. “Schedule-based conventional pest management had to exist because you didn’t have the ability to monitor things and prevent them. And then, people just got comfortable.”
Remote sensing and mapping to improve vineyard management
Greg has also been leveraging drone-based remote sensing to get insights on the general health of his vineyards. He insists that it doesn’t replace field scouting, but rather is complementary and makes it more efficient. “You can have the best resolution pictures, but if no one knows what you’re looking at, no one’s gonna identify anything. You can say that there’s an anomaly in the data, but what does it actually mean?” Ground truthing the variation detected in the multispectral imagery is key to making the data valuable. Scheid Vineyards’ team mostly uses the well-known Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), which they try to correlate with field observations, such as irrigation and overall canopy health. “With wine grapes, you’re trying to create an as uniform crop as you can get, and that is the main thing this data helps us with.”
To monitor their soil moisture, they’ve spent the last three years mapping their vineyards with the EM 38 electromagnetic induction (EMI) device. “The Electro Conductivity Scanning (ECS) allowed detecting micro variations in soil, which really opened our eyes to a lot of stuff. You quickly realize how many pockets of heavy, medium, or light soil you have. It can drastically change your perspective on some of the inefficiencies in your vineyards,” he relates.
He explains that thanks to these two types of remote sensing, “Knowing these variations and these microclimates, you can farm on the precision level and really balance your crop.”
Mapping yields has also proven to bring some great benefits. Greg points out that, “You might see it as just a yield map, but what you’re actually doing is getting a harvested nutrition map as well. Once you correlate it with your nutrition data, you know the pounds of nitrogen and the pounds of potassium that you’re harvesting, and you can also compare that to the variability detected in the NDVI maps.”
Greg’s team is indexing this information year after year and using it to develop maps which visualize change and assess whether or not their strategies are working. “We try to observe if some vines are continuously in a decline, especially the older vines of 20 years or more. Just like humans, their needs change as they get older. So, strategies have to change as well, and this type of data helps us to do that.”
Cover crop and insectary habitats are key tools in the transition to organic wine growing
The transition to organic farming involves improving soil health and creating conditions which attract natural enemies.
Greg is an advocate of the use of cover crops in the vineyards he manages. “Something that is really important is, with the help of cover crops, to get a balanced 20:1 carbon and nitrogen ratio in order to promote your soil biology, and for your vines to process the nutrients.”
In the different estates he supervises, he shares that, “We’ve been using the normal barley, the Merced Rye, and the general vetch mix for insectary rows. And we’re in California, so we have more of the California poppy mixed in and it seems to regenerate pretty strongly.”
But he points out that, “In the transition into organics, we’re going from cover crops that need to go to seed and into senescence, and later be tilled and worked into the ground, to more of the sod-forming cover crops (note: characterized by their capacity to produce either rhizomes or stolons), such as the brome and the zorro fescue. We’re near some nice prairie ground, so we are allowing the native plants to come back in and really trying to avoid something that has to go completely to seed in order to maintain itself.”
Greg adds that, “In terms of building soil health, we are also looking at cover crops suited for non-tillage vineyards. So, to summarize, you need something that you’ll be able to keep low to the ground and that doesn’t need to go to seed in order to establish itself.”
In terms of cover crops management, he suggests that, “You also want to try to keep them as alive as possible. If you already have some short sprinkler irrigation system for frost control, you can use them to keep your cover crops green.”
But soil health is not the only goal of these complementary plants. “We also do things like pollinator rows or hedgerows that will attract the pollinators. We have wonderful monarch butterfly migration that comes through here. I want to make sure that they have a place that they can hang out when they’re coming through and heading over to Pacific Grove. Nature can do wonderful things. So it’s harnessing its natural ability and just going from there.”
Greg believes that building this type of insectary habitat will create the maximum chance of success for his future plan of implementing augmented biological control to manage pests like spider mites and mealybugs.
Misconceptions about the increased cost of weeding when not using herbicides
Even as the most heavily relied upon conventional herbicides receive more and more bad press and become increasingly regulated, many growers still fear a cost increase if they had to manage their soil cover without them. But Greg believes this is another misconception. “We have this kind of golden rule at Scheid Vineyards: multi-job, single pass. Don’t ever go through the vineyard unless you’re going to be doing two jobs. When you start using technologies that help you drive your tractor straight, you can start utilizing it to its full ability as a tool carrier, mid-row, mid-mount, front mount, back mount, PTO (Note: Power take-off ) on the front…you name it. So when I hear people saying ‘Oh, organic weed control, it’s an extra $150 an acre. We can’t afford that’. I don’t think it is true, as long as you’re not driving 10 miles an hour through the vineyard on any given task. If you drive your tractor at two and a half to four miles per hour, you’re right in that sweet spot where most implements work.”
Greg mentions that some tools such as French plows which were invented before chemical herbicides can do terrible damage if they are used while driving too fast. “That’s why some people started to use glyphosate, it was so much easier…”
He adds that for manual weed control their tool of choice is the Clemens weed knife “It’s an old technology with just a little bit of new age, hydraulic soft-touch controls on it.”
Regulations or environmental sustainability goals are not the only reasons for reducing the use of herbicides. Glyphosate resistance can become a real issue in vineyards. “Now you see weeds that never go away, even if you are spraying. So what do you gotta do?”
Greg comments that even in their conventional vineyards, they are now nearly 100% glyphosate-free, and when they do use herbicides they perform spot spraying.
For grape growers trying to remove herbicides from their tool kit, leveraging each pass of the tractor in the vineyards and managing cover crops is the recipe for an affordable weed management program. To conclude on this point, Greg reports that, “Our seed bank is now very low, and with the competition of our cover crops, we’ve really started to defeat the weeds. We got down to four tractor passes a year. And then there are some weeds that you can actually tolerate.”
The importance of recording the “why” a product is sprayed
While regulations have a role to play in removing harmful products from the market, Greg believes that, “We have an issue with thinking we can solve all problems through regulation, as opposed to doing it through innovation and collaboration.”
He argues that one of the issues slowing down the rate of process improvement throughout the industry is that stems from the well-intentioned reporting system. “In California, we have a great state system to report the aftermath. What and how much did you do spray? How many acres? Yet, we have no mandate or no regulations about the “why” we sprayed. So it’s a one-sided equation.”
Greg thinks that by building such a database, pesticides would have been used in a more targeted way. “If 20 years ago the agriculture world could have brought the narrative to the table of not just how much chemical growers are using, but had instead mandated to record the reason why a product is used, we’d be in a completely different world right now.”
He believes that the state should take as much responsibility as the growers do regarding the current use of potentially harmful chemicals. “Farmers have no time to defend themself. And the heavy use of conventional pesticides has been partially driven by state-funded research and education, which was itself getting funding from the manufacturers of these products now considered harmful. Yet, they’re not going to take the rap for contributing to it.” In Greg’s opinion, the way to go forward is to, “Stop spending as much money on figuring out what needs to be regulated and start spending more money on how to achieve where we need to be.”
He does admit that there is already a lot of financial help growers can take advantage of, such as the state water efficiency grants that helped him purchase and set up extensive networks of probes in his vineyards. “When I started in 2009-2010, we were willing to take that transition cost, but I don’t think it is the case anymore. If you take the time and energy to do your research and write grants proposals, the transition cost becomes lessened. The more people take advantage of these funding opportunities, the more they’re going to become available.”
He concedes that, “You have to put more energy because the monitoring has to be at a higher frequency and more precise, but I don’t think transitioning to organic is a huge increase in cost. The technology and knowledge now available helps you maintain your yield during the transition. The organic vegetable growers in our areas have really shown that their yield is nearly the same as when they were farming conventionally.”
Greg concludes by suggesting that growers might need to look at their personnel differently. Data scientists, chemists, geographic information systems (GIS), and database management specialists are some of the competencies that can help at least large growers in this transition towards sustainable or organic farming.
Have you converted your vineyards to sustainably certified or organic recently? Do you think that pesticide reporting systems should be looked at in more detail in order to modernize them and better align it with modern IPM best practices? Reach out to us, we’d love to hear your story.