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As a snowstorm raged outside, attendees at the Washington Winegrowers conference in Kennewick, Washington were eager to talk about spring and the arrival of warmer weather during the Wednesday session on Farming by Phenology.

Irrigation, pest and disease control, and even labor management can benefit from paying close attention to the vines’ development and the growing degree day index, rather than relying on a calendar, speakers said.

“Grapevines can pick up or slow down the pace depending on the prevailing temperature,” said Markus Keller, a Washington State University viticulturist.  “It’s the accumulation of temperature—more than the timing of bud break—that leads to the veraison.”

Washington State University viticulturist Markus Keller speaks during the second day of the Washington Winegrowers annual meeting in Kennewick, Washington on Feb. 8, 2017. <b>(TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)</b>

Washington State University viticulturist Markus Keller speaks during the second day of the Washington Winegrowers annual meeting in Kennewick, Washington on Feb. 8, 2017. (TJ Mullinax/Good Fruit Grower)

When a warm spring turns into a hot summer, as Washington growers experienced in 2015, the entire growing season moves faster, which can strain labor resources.

The window for accomplishing key tasks such as shoot thinning and leaf removal is condensed, and growers are increasingly turning to mechanization to get the work done in a timely way, said Jim McFerran, viticulturist for Wyckoff Farms in Grandview, Washington.

“It’s prudent to come up with a plan B. A mechanical shoot thinner can’t do the job perfectly, but it can buy you time,” he said, adding that weather and phenology data is key to making those informed decisions. “For me, it all comes back to tracking, tracking, tracking, and to have certain seasonal goals in mind for task accomplishment.”

When it comes to disease management, there are more tradeoffs. Warm spring weather can also boost vine vigor, resulting in a dense canopy that requires more spraying to control powdery mildew than a slower growing canopy in cool weather, said WSU viticulturist Michelle Moyer.

“Early, rapid canopy fill can be a good thing, but it’s not good if the plan can outgrow the preventive products,” she said. “It’s a problem for pesticides that have to be in contact with the tissue to work.”

Come summer, however, that warm weather allows for better canopy management through deficit irrigation, while cool weather will favor mildew and botrytis blight, she said.

In an earlier session, growers also learned about the labor landscape for 2017, including increased use of the federal guestworker program known as H-2A, changes to Washington’s Worker Protection Standards for pesticide use and a new law that requires growers to provide workers with paid sick leave.

The paid sick leave is a requirement under a bill that also increased the minimum wage gradually over the next four years, after which it will be tied to inflation: $11 in 2017, $11.50 in 2018, $12 in 2019 and $13.50 in 2020.

Growers who are wondering if they should pay more or buy capital equipment that might enable them to reduce the size of their workforce can plug those numbers into any calculations to determine how much their labor costs will increase year to year, said Sarah Wixson, an attorney with Stokes Lawrence Velikanji Moore and Shore in Yakima, Washington.

Under the bill, growers also must provide 1 hour of paid sick leave for every 40 hours worked. That time accrues over the course of the year, and up to 40 hours may be rolled over to the next calendar year.

That’s true even if a worker only works for the grower for a short time, quits, then returns the following year, so growers must be vigilant about tracking sick leave time accrued by each worker, Wixson said.

Several workers also provided updates on the H-2A program, a program that has grown significantly in use by Washington growers in the past decade.

Just 814 workers were brought to Washington under the program in 2004; that number grew to 13,641 workers last year, according to Craig Carroll of Washington’s Employment Security Department.

Growers need to be sure to use a certified labor contractor, specify what the contractor and grower are each responsible for, and, in writing, forbid collection of payment from a worker during the recruiting process, said Brendan Monahan, also an attorney with Stokes Lawrence Velikanji Moore and Shore.

Other tips from Monahan: double check insurance, particularly for housing, consult with an attorney and be sure to meticulously comply with requirements for recruiting domestic workers.

For more changes ahead in the labor landscape for growers, stay tuned to future issues of Good Fruit Grower.

– by Kate Prengaman and Shannon Dininny