What are grape growers doing to be more efficient and stay in business?

Keith Oliver, manager at Olsen Brothers Farms in Prosser, Washington, said they are reducing tractor hours in both juice and wine grape vineyards, using minimal pruning, and have reduced man-hours by switching to drip irrigation in Concord grape vineyards.

Diversified grape and tree fruit grower Art den Hoed of Sunnyside, Washington, has also focused on reducing tractor passes in the vineyard as a way to control costs, changing from clean cultivation to no-till in the row middles. Oliver and den Hoed took part in a panel discussion held at the Washington State Grape Society annual meeting to explore ways to reduce farm inputs while maintaining grape yields and quality.

“We are a strong believer in minimal pruning,” Oliver said, adding that the practice costs about $40 per acre, which includes tractor, driver, and a hand crew for follow-up. Since the early 1990s, Olsen Brothers has transitioned from using an expensive pruning machine, to a sickle-hedge-type pruner, to now only cutting off the bottom of the vines.

Though they’ve had their share of “hiccups,” almost all of their Concord acreage that is machine harvested is now minimally pruned as well as some wine grapes like Riesling. A simple sickle bar trims the skirt bottom, with a hand crew cleaning up any straggler canes. “We tell the crew ‘don’t stop walking’ as they pass through.”

Yields from minimally pruned grapes are comparable to hand pruned and the yields are sustainable, Oliver said. Ripening hasn’t been a problem, but he added that yields do jump up following the first year of minimal pruning. He advised growers to try part of a block and transition their vineyard gradually.

And if the mechanical harvester is set up properly, he said there are no problems during harvest with MOG (material other than grapes).

Though micro or drip irrigation is a standard practice in wine grapes, Oliver said the practice also works well in Concords, even in old vineyards. Drip irrigation requires fewer man hours per acre, which he estimated saves $30 per acre in labor costs.

Fertigation is another bonus of drip irrigation and can be done several times a year without a tractor or applicator.

Row middles are also easier to manage under micro irrigation and can be mowed just twice a year. “We don’t disk anymore, and we don’t plant much of a cover crop now,” Oliver said. “Before, we had to plant each fall and deal with it in the spring. Now, we leave the middles alone.”

No till

“We’ve gone from clean cultivation to no till, and we make as few passes in the field as we can,” said den Hoed, adding that clean cultivation required several tractor passes with a disk. “We try to get through the vineyard with only two passes in the tractor all year.”

They use a no-till drill to seed cover crops in the vineyards. The drill also chops any weeds that are in the way when they seed. Winter or spring wheat and rye are used as cover crops. They also save money by not spraying the cover crops with any herbicides. After mowing in the spring, the cover crop reseeds itself, helping to keep weeds at bay the rest of the year.

Since moving away from clean cultivation, they don’t have the sprinkler irrigation water runoff problems they once had.