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A team of Washington State’s juice grape industry members and university scientists has begun a three-year project to develop a sustainability guide for grape growers. The project is funded through a Washington State Department of ­Agriculture block grant.

Craig Bardwell, senior viticulture specialist for National Grape Cooperative’s Grandview, Washington, processing facility, says that many retailers now require some type of sustainability program that documents production practices of the foods they purchase. Welch’s, the retail label for National Grape Cooperative’s products, is feeling pressure from such retailers.

Sustainable programs already exist for Concord and juice grape growers in Michigan (Grape*A*Syst) and New York (Vine Balance) and for Washington’s wine grape growers (Vinewise). “As far as juice grape growing areas go, we’re the only ones that don’t have a program in place,” Bardwell said during a winter grape meeting.

He noted that juice grape industry members, recognizing the need to be proactive in the sustainability area, approached Washington State University grape researchers, Drs. Joan Davenport and Doug Walsh, to help develop a sustainability program specific to Washington’s needs. Davenport received a WSDA block grant for about $65,000 to develop a sustainability report card for juice grape growers.

Bardwell said that strong encouragement to develop a sustainability program is coming from National Grape Cooperative’s headquarters in Westfield, New York. “They want each of their growers to complete this process prior to harvest in 2012, even though it will be a prototype. We’re really under the gun to get this accomplished.”

He assured growers that the program is not designed to be a big burden on farmers or change their grape growing practices. “But it’s a way to assess your cultural practices and identify some areas where you could improve from the standpoint of economic sustainability and ­environmental sustainability.”

Report card details

Davenport, who leads the project, stressed that it is a voluntary program, although processors are very involved in the project. Major juice grape processors involved include: FruitSmart, J.M. Smucker, Milne Fruit Products, National Grape Cooperative, Tree Top, and Valley Processing. Dr. Michelle Moyer, extension viticulture specialist, is also part of the team.

For the report card, a list of common viticultural practices will be defined and evaluated for sustainability based on national juice grape industry standards, Davenport said. Management areas include canopy, irrigation, nutrition, pest, and soil, along with continuing education.

This year, the report card will be developed, program specifics reviewed with participating processors, and the program field-tested with  growers.

Year two (2013) will be spent fine-tuning the report card and developing an action plan that growers can use to identify strategies to improve their practices. The ­program will again be reviewed by the processors and field-tested by a targeted percentage of growers.

A final sustainability report card, supported by a Web site, will be launched in year three. At the end of the process, Washington juice grape growers and processors will have a guide that documents their sustainable ­practices.

Bardwell stressed that the report card is being designed to be completed by the grower and will not require third-party auditing. It’s not a pass-fail program, he said.