Editor’s note: The print version of Justin Lyon’s interview in the November 2021 issue accidentally included a statement that was from a prior young grower interview. This online version has been corrected. Good Fruit Grower deeply regrets the error.
family background/ Justin graduated from Columbia Basin College and Washington State University and manages vineyards in the Yakima Valley and Red Mountain AVAs. He’s married to Brianne Holden-Boushey and is the son of Susan and Michael Lyon.
How did you get your start?
My grandpa was a pharmacist but also had a 10-acre cherry block in Prosser that I would work on when I was young — fixing irrigation, spraying during the summer and harvesting.
I was interested in plants and I enjoyed growing stuff from a young age, however I didn’t know if this was what I wanted to do. While in college, I realized I wanted to work outside and have my own freedom while I was working.
Did you continue the agriculture track in college?
Growing up in ag, I got to a point in college where I felt like I wanted to do something else, so I went as far away from ag as possible: physical therapy. About a year into that I realized working inside for that job wasn’t for me.
Pursuing something different allowed me to find my way back into ag, where I obtained an enology internship.
That internship helped me to develop an interest in grapes and got me away from my cherry and tree fruit background. From that point forward, grapes took the cake for me.
What did you learn during your internship?
The internship was a science-winemaking position with Ste. Michelle in Paterson, Washington, and it was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing.
I worked from July through December, where I dug out tanks, racked tanks, did inoculations, stuff like that. The interns had a couple of days during that time to go out with the winemaking team to the vineyards.
Those visits are where I got that “ah-ha!” moment — working with vines is what I wanted to do. For me the internship was great, and it gave me opportunities to see what I really wanted to do with my career.
How did you do your job search while in college?
Luckily, I was hired shortly after graduating by a company in Alderdale, Washington. I spent time going through job boards specifically looking for viticulture jobs.
I’d find several vit and enology internship jobs, but I was looking for a full-time position with somebody. I believed I had developed advanced enough skills from growing up in ag and what I learned in school to be that kind of person for a company, so I pounded the board until I found the right fit.
What challenges are you facing in your job?
One of the challenges growers should be working on now is mechanizing the vineyard as much as we can. For a small outfit like us, we can’t justify mechanizing every task, so we have to do what we can as we go.
A couple years ago we bought a pre-pruner, which saves us about a week’s worth of pruning time. Now that we’re getting the top little bit off the wire, crews can come along and work really fast. It’s been a big help for our business.
Mechanization provides more choices when we are figuring out whether we will do another weed spraying pass, use a mechanical cultivator, or send people hand-hoeing through the vines. I believe growers must figure out a way to integrate mechanization going forward.
Are there any pests bugging you?
Our big issue right now is leafroll virus. Until we can get a handle on how to control the mealybugs and prevent the spread of those vectors, grape growers need to work together because we’re all in the same boat dealing with it.
In one property, we ended up having to pull out 6,000 vines to remove as much of the virus as we could. Going forward, I think this will be one of the problems that force us to rip out vineyards if we can’t get control of it. There’s really no easy answers for mealybug and leafroll right now.
What advice do you have for young growers?
I think a good IPM program is crucial for everyone that’s out here farming grapes. If you’re not, then you’re spending more money on solving problems or you’re incurring a lot of damage in your crop.
If you want to go into any kind of farming, you need to learn a little bit of IPM. If you’re in college looking to get into this industry, try to learn about mechanization and how farms can remotely control equipment.
That could be in automating irrigation systems, tractors or optical spray systems. There’s a lot of technology that growers are looking to adopt in the future, and I think there’s a huge demand for that knowledge in the marketplace.