A bright future for Washington grapes
A collective effort is needed to move the grape industry forward, say key leaders.
Washington State's grape industry has been a consistent bright spot in the last decade among the state's agricultural commodities, but there are plenty of challenges facing the industry, including the need for more research funding.
Citing numerous accomplishments as well as shortfalls, a panel of industry leaders speaking at the Washington State Grape Society's annual meeting told grape growers not to be complacent.
Dr. Robert Stevens, interim director at Washington State University's Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center at Prosser, highlighted the following accomplishments in research and Extension:
- Hiring world-renowned enologist Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling as WSU's new viticulture and enology program director
- Establishing the Northwest Grape Foundation Service to provide clean planting material to Washington growers
- Building the WSU research winery at Prosser to facilitate enology research
- Planting and replanting juice and wine grape vineyards at IAREC for viticultural research
- Revising the popular viticulture and enology certificate program to allow individuals to audit sections while waiting to participate
- Creating a viticulture and enology major at WSU, instead of a concentration under the horticulture program
"The future is bright and shiny," Stevens said. "But we do have a $5.1 billion state deficit. That means there might be a rain cloud that sneaks over from Olympia. But I'm really charged up about the current faculty and facilities for research that we have in place to help the industry move forward."
Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers and a board member of the National Grape and Wine Initiative, noted that Washington's grape industry is involved with NGWI to make sure that Northwest research priorities are plugged into the national effort. Grape grower Tedd Wildman from Mattawa serves on the board, with other Pacific Northwest representatives serving on various committees.
The mission of the initiative, a nationwide coalition representing all segments of the grape industry, including raisin, fresh (table), juice, and wine grapes, is to enable the U.S. grape and wine industry to be the world leader in consumer value and sustainability and contribute to the quality of life in rural communities. The coalition has identified national research priorities and is working to fund them through cooperative research, extension, and education projects.
"We have buckets of research topics identified," Scharlau said. Among the topics are the viticultural influences on wine quality. A one-day seminar on the subject will be held during the 2009 Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento, California. Participants will also look at developing the concept of a national analytical service center, creating a manual of sustainable practices for winery wastewater and energy, and studying the impacts of climate change on the grape industry. A grape health workshop recently brought together medical experts to discuss the various health benefits from grapes.
Scharlau gave kudos to the Research Task Force for their completion of a research plan for the state's grape industry. "We're one of only two sectors in agriculture that has a research plan in place," she said, adding that efforts to develop a national research initiative by the U.S. grape and wine industry worked so well that they brought the concept to the state level.
The task force report, which took two years to complete, identifies 12 research priorities and defines how a stepped-up research program, costing $3 to $4 million, could be implemented. Wine and grape trade groups are reviewing the report.
At state and national levels, the grape industry has identified plenty of research needs, but is struggling to find ways to fund them.
Out of $28 million in the 2008 Farm Bill that was awarded to specialty crop competitive research grants, WSU received $2.3 million, with $200,000 of that going to grapes, according to Scharlau. "When you look at the grants by commodity, melons got more than grapes," she said. "We're going to have to do better next time."
She noted that grapes didn't fare much better with the $10 million in specialty crop block grants given to states. "At the national level, grapes received less than 5 percent of the block grants. Washington grapes got zero."
Another area needing funding is the WSU research infrastructure at IAREC, neglected for many years. "While the research work at Prosser has always been stellar, we've always known that the challenge for research has been the infrastructure." She called on industry to convince the state legislature to update facilities and equipment, but admitted that efforts will be difficult, given the current state budget deficit.