Juice grape growers in Washington State have found a way to aerate the soil, relieve soil compaction, and reduce farming costs.

An aerator implement that uses metal fingers to loosen the soil is finding favor in the grape industry. Forage and grain crop farmers have found the implement is useful in minimum-till practices. It is also used in turf grass—from sod production to golf courses to sporting fields—for aeration and thatching. It’s not a new tool, but one that may have been overlooked by fruit growers.

Concord grape grower Jerry Czebotar of Pasco believes the aerator will “revolutionize” the juice grape industry. Grandview grape grower Urban Killian said the implement gives him more fishing time. Both think the aerator, which goes by the patented name AerWay and is manufactured by the Holland Group of Companies, will save grape growers time and money.

“We’re all looking for ways to increase productivity and make more money,” Czebotar said during a panel discussion on vineyard floor management that was part of the Washington State Grape Society’s annual meeting last winter. “And one of the best ways that I’ve found is to cut back on the number of tractor passes made through the vineyard. I used to spend all of my summers glued to the tractor seat, cultivating back and forth across acres and acres.”

That is until he followed the advice of fellow farmers Paul and Urban Killian and started using an aerator. Czebotar bought a six-foot wide AerWay to relieve soil compaction and improve soil productivity. The AerWay comes in a single or tandem roller style, and the rollers can be offset for more aggressive cultivation.

Fewer tractor passes

He compares the effect of the Aerway’s eight-inch spikes (patented shattertines) that fracture the soil to a homeowner aerating a lawn. The aerator leaves a herringbone pattern behind. “It’s just like aerating the grass, leaving those little plugs in the lawn. It’s amazing how it loosens up the soil profile without damaging roots like you can get with a disk or cultivator.”

Though Czebotar can’t completely put away his rotovator—he has spring frost concerns and makes one pass with the rotovator to knock down vegetation in the rows—its use is now greatly diminished. “If I was in a frost-free site, I’d never hook up to that rotovator again,” he said.

Czebotar uses the aerator in the spring to incorporate dry fertilizer into the vineyard. He then rotovates once because of frost concern, sprays weeds when needed during the summer, and then in late summer, uses the aerator to reduce compaction and loosen the soil before planting an annual cover crop of Sudan grass, winter wheat, and cereal rye.

“There are no harvester issues,” he said. “You can move smoothly down the rows, and I’ve cut down greatly the number of tractor passes in the vineyard. It’s a really good way to cut down on the costs, and over time, it will help improve the soil organic matter. It’s a really good way to handle larger and larger acreage with fewer and fewer trips.”

Urban, who has used the aerator for more than a decade, said he no longer uses the rotovator. Before switching solely to the aerator, he used to still rotovate in the spring. When driving 2.5 miles per hour and covering 200 acres, he said it took a long time, and wore out a lot of blades. But ten years ago, Urban put the rotovator away and now only uses the aerator once each year, in the spring. “And that’s all I do to work the ground.”

For weed control, he uses a four-wheeler to spray, making a pass about every six weeks.

“I get very little to no water runoff from sprinkler irrigation with the aerator, whereas before we’d have runoff,” Urban said. “For me, it’s a matter of going 2.5 mph or 6 mph. The aerator gives me quite a bit more fishing time.”

Urban’s nephew Paul, who farms separately, said that when he first bought the aerator, he initially still used the rotovator in the spring to incorporate dry fertilizer. But he’s since learned that the aerator works the ground enough to incorporate the fertilizer and he no longer rotovates.

“When I was a kid growing up, that’s what we did all summer—we’d rotovate in the fall after fertilizing, we’d rotovate in the spring after working brush,” Paul said. “We rotovated all summer, throughout the season, nonstop.”

All of that rotovating wore out the blades, Paul said, adding that changing blades on a rotovator costs between $800 and $1,200.

Other benefits

Paul has noticed improved water infiltration from years of using the aerator. In the past, he usually saw water runoff in August and would then use the aerator again. But now, he sees very little runoff even without using the aerator late in the ­season.

Pockets in the soil that are created by the shattertines help capture irrigation water and precipitation, min­imizing runoff and erosion, and help improve moisture retention.

Urban noted that the aerator works fine through the three-inch-thick mulch of vine brush cuttings that he has on his vineyard floor.

Weed control is another benefit, the grower panel agreed, although it’s not a cure-all for weed control. Paul has found that the aerator works well in controlling water grass, but not all weeds.

In the past, Czebotar said he always thought the rotovator was making a perfect seed bed for weeds, and he then spent all summer controlling them. “It seemed that a new flush of weeds would spring up every time I used the rotovator. The rotovator just encouraged weed growth and made more work for me.”