Oct 13, 2021
Open burning window closing for California grape growers

With a deadline looming for the end of open burning of removed orchards or vineyards in the San Joaquin Valley, farmer Tom Murphy is contemplating his limited options.

The problem, Murphy said, is the trellis system that supports his grapevines.

“The vine attaches itself to the trellis system over time,” said Murphy, who grows winegrapes in the San Joaquin County community of Farmington. “You’ve got the wire running through the vine. The only practical way to separate the vine from the steel is to burn the vineyard and then pick up the steel.” Recycling the steel can pay for a good portion of his removal expenses when steel prices are high, he added.

Murphy and other grape growers have only a short window of burning left. The California Air Resources Board mandated a gradual phaseout of most agricultural burning in February as a result of a law enacted in 2003. It envisioned the end of burning in 2010, but several postponements were enacted, the most recent of which expired Feb. 24.

The pending burn ban and the incentives cover eight counties under the jurisdiction of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. The counties are San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern.

A revised timeline released by the district over the summer shows that, as of Jan. 1, 2022, burning will no longer be allowed for grape growers with more than 2,000 acres of cordon-pruned vines or more than 500 acres of cane-pruned vines. The cordons are the arms extending from the vine’s trunk, while the canes are shoots extending from the cordons.

These requirements will be tightened until Jan. 1, 2025—when all grape growers will be prohibited from burning removed vineyards except in cases of disease or pest concerns. Similar reductions leading to prohibitions also are in place for citrus, tree fruit and tree nut growers.

The state budget for 2022 includes $178 million to help affected valley farmers with alternatives to burning.

Aaron Tarango, a program manager in the grants department at the air district, said the first $30 million in incentive funding will help boost the fleet sizes for those who do the chipping and processing of woody waste. Those operators could be contractors or larger growers willing to rent out their machinery to their smaller brethren. The rest will go toward helping farmers offset the increased costs.

The new incentive scale for vineyards offers up to $1,300 per acre for cordon-pruned vineyards and up to $800 per acre for cane-pruned vineyards, depending on what becomes of the old vines. In a cordon-pruned vineyard, vines chipped and incorporated back into the soil or destined for beneficial use off site are eligible for $1,300; chipping with soil incorporation is eligible for $1,000.

Ryan Jacobsen, chief executive officer of the Fresno County Farm Bureau, called the grapevine issue his county’s No. 1 concern.

“There’s some promising opportunities out there, but they’re all very expensive comparative to what we’re having to do to remove a vineyard,” Jacobsen said, adding that he and others are trying to figure out “how we help to fund that difference—as well as can we get it more cost effective?”

Tarango said such concerns prompted the air district to bump up the incentive amounts for cordon-pruned vineyards.

Acampo grape grower Chris Gillespie said removed trees in his area have been chipped for years. But grapevines such as those he needed to remove earlier this year are a different case because of the enmeshed steel.

“We have to have specialized machinery to help us,” Gillespie said. “You can’t just use a tree grinder to do this. They’re not designed for that.”

Gillespie said he’d love to see some incentive money go to equipment manufacturers who might be able to devise a practical vineyard-recycling machine.

“That’s who needs to take this and run with it,” Gillespie said, “because the only thing that I could see for us to do is to just cut the cordon off where all the wire’s stuck in it. And then you take that to the dump, and that’s not cost-effective, and that’s not good for the environment.”

Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, said technology is being redesigned to “help meet the needs of the vineyard,” noting that some orchard owners also have to deal with enmeshed steel.

“We do have some trees that have wire around their canopy to help hold up their main branches when the fruit is developed,” Cunha said. “That wire also embeds itself, eventually grows around that main limb.”

With new rules coming, Cunha said, a new recommendation for vineyard removals is being developed.

“You’ll ask them to remove as much of the wire as you possibly can,” he said. “The stake and the crossarm must be removed.” Drip-irrigation hose and loose pieces of wire in the vines also must be removed, he said. The rest is piled in fields for a grapple machine to load in the grinder, with the machine’s owner making compost out of the chipped wood.

“The new machines today that they have available are running about 75% to 85% removal of the wire,” he said.

This is done with magnets that can clear pieces of wire from the wood. Research is ongoing, with a goal of reaching 99% wire removal, Cunha added. Wood chips with embedded steel can’t be incorporated back into the soil because the steel would pose a safety hazard to farm employees, he noted.

All of this is expensive, Cunha said. The old way—in which the farmer would pull the stakes and the drip-irrigation hose, pile up the rest, light the torch and recycle the remaining steel—ran about $350 to $500 per acre. Grinding machines can cost $1 million or more, and extra labor is needed to remove crossarms and wire before the machine can go to work. This increases removal to $1,300 to $1,400 per acre, he said.

Gillespie said he can’t justify the expense of buying the machinery.

“We’re not going to be investing millions of dollars into a piece of machinery that we only use once every 20 years,” he said. “Nobody’s ripping out vineyards just for the fun of it.”

That means he and others would need to hire a contractor to handle the job. Jacobsen said Fresno County Farm Bureau is talking with state and regional air quality officials and local agricultural organizations about the issue. Equipment turnaround is a concern, he said, as the demand for the grinders is likely to exceed supply.

“That’s going to be a real issue,” Jacobsen said. “The season in which this occurs is typically very condensed as growers try to turn around that ground as quickly as possible during those late fall-winter months.” Vineyard removal would typically take place after harvest, he added, with the ground being replanted in the spring.

Tarango said incentive funding is available to any commercial grower within the district. For more information, and to apply, go to valleyair.org/agburnalternatives. Farmers also may call 559-230-6000 or email [email protected]

Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau Federation 

Acampo grape grower Chris Gillespie encounters enmeshed steel in vines removed this year. “You can’t just use a tree grinder,” he said. Photo: Kevin Hecteman

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