Posts Tagged: George Zhuang
Supply-chain crisis forces some to pivot to mechanical, biocontrol measures
Driving through her vineyards on a chilly morning in December, Hortencia Alvarado is taking comfort – for now – that the weeds she sees are all yellow. But there remains a nagging worry that, like the pesky plants, is merely lying dormant for the season.
When March rolls around, and the first signs of new green growth appear on the vines, Alvarado and other vineyard managers will again have to confront the ongoing shockwaves of the global supply-chain crisis.
Growers of grapes – the third-highest valued agricultural commodity in California at $4.48 billion in 2020 – likely won't be able to access the herbicides that they usually apply.
“I definitely need to start thinking and considering it because I don't want to be in that situation where I don't have [the herbicide] when I need it,” said Alvarado, a vineyard manager in the San Joaquin Valley.
She first noticed the effects of the shortages this past August, during the application following the harvest of early varietals. Alvarado's agricultural pest control adviser had recommended a different product, instead of their usual standby, Rely – because none of the handful of suppliers in California could find it.
Then Alvarado's foreman started reporting that the substitute wasn't controlling the weeds.
“We were using some other stuff that wasn't as good, so basically we were wasting money on stuff that wasn't doing what we wanted it to do,” Alvarado explained.
The need for more machines or labor is just one result of the herbicide shortage, said George Zhuang, University of California Cooperative Extension viticulture farm advisor in Fresno County. Zhuang has received “a lot” of calls from growers about the chemical supply issues, which are also affecting fertilizers. He's been urging them to move away from traditional herbicides to mechanical means or biocontrol such as sheep or fowl – even though they might be more expensive.
Zhuang estimates that while a weed program comprises 5% to 10% of total production costs in a normal year with the usual herbicides, the use of nonchemical alternatives could hike that percentage up to 10% to 20%. In addition to their impact on the bottom line, effective herbicides are especially crucial to grape growers because vines – unlike tree crops – cannot naturally shade out weeds with expansive canopies.
“Right now, people can still scramble around and find some limited chemicals to make sure the crop is successful for the harvest, but if the situation goes for another year, I think there's going to be a panic in farming communities,” Zhuang said.
Herbicide challenges expected to linger
Unfortunately, the availability of certain products is likely going to be “challenged” into at least the middle of 2022, according to Andy Biancardi, a Salinas-based sales manager at Wilbur-Ellis, an international marketer and distributor of agricultural products and chemicals. Biancardi said that the suppliers he talks to are advising people to make preparations.
The supply of glyphosate, the key component in products such as RoundUp (used by many Midwestern farmers), appears to be most affected, Biancardi said. As a result, that shortage has put the squeeze on alternatives such as glufosinate, used in products like Rely – the herbicide favored by many California grape growers.
“The cost of glufosinate has definitely gone up because there just isn't enough, so everyone is obviously marking it up,” said Biancardi, who estimates that prices for both glyphosate and glufosinate are up 25% to 30% for growers.
Alvarado said that while large commercial operations are able to pay the premium prices or shift to other weed control measures, some smaller growers have essentially given up the fight – simply letting the weeds take over.
“They're just letting it go wild until the dormant season,” she said. “They're hoping that – by when they do start to spray [around March] – they'll hopefully have that Rely.”
Silver lining to supply crisis?
Large-scale growers and retailers are buying up those scarcer products when they can, in anticipation of future shortages during critical times. Biancardi said that while his company traditionally runs inventories down at the end of the season, they are instead stocking up on herbicides that customers will demand.
“Careful planning and forecasting is going to be more important than ever, that's really the key,” he said. “At this point we can't guarantee ‘business as usual,' based on what we're hearing.”
Shaking off old habits might actually bring some benefits to business, according to Alvarado, as a forced shift away from chemicals could prove to be a selling point for customers, from a sustainability and marketing standpoint.
“Out of this shortage, there might be some good, some wins,” she said, “but at the same time, we're going to need some answers – I think it's going to be a bumpy road.”
Calling the confluence of drought, record heat and a shortage of chemicals a “perfect storm,” Zhuang said that consumers could start feeling those jolts as well.
“Eventually, somebody is going to eat the costs – either the farming community or the consumer is going to eat the cost, I hate to say it,” he said./h3>/h3>/h3>/h2>
New studies provide details about trellis type, planting density, cost and potential benefit of vineyard mechanization
The studies estimate the cost of establishing a vineyard and producing wine grapes, focusing on four wine grape varieties – Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Rubired and Colombard.
“Those studies take into consideration mechanical pruning, leafing, shoot thinning, and harvest on a typical wine grape vineyard with the average production level for this region,” said George Zhuang, UC Cooperative Extension viticulture advisor in Fresno County.
“With farming labor becoming more scarce and expensive, growers will opt to transition into more mechanization,” Zhuang said. “These studies provide detailed information about the trellis type, planting density, cost and potential benefit of vineyard mechanization. Based on these studies, fully implemented mechanization reduces the production cost from $3,000 to $2,500 per acre and that represents 17% cost reduction. This information will ultimately help growers to guide their production practices to more profitable and competitive ways under the new era of farming labor.”
“The investment to purchase and own equipment can be high,” Zhuang said. “Fortunately, it is easy to find a contractor in this region to perform certain vineyard tasks, if the initial investment to purchase equipment is prohibitive.”
Numerous studies, including UC studies, have confirmed the benefits of vineyard mechanization to grape and wine quality with lower production costs.
“It is a win-win-win situation,” Zhuang said. “Growers can improve their farming margins, wineries and juice processing plants can get reliable and higher quality grapes and juice from farms, and average consumers can enjoy better wine and more healthy grape products at an affordable price.”
The studies are based on 200-acre farms with the vineyard established on 40 acres using two types of trellis systems – quadrilateral cordon system and bilateral cordon system. In addition to regular grape production expenses – such as irrigation, fertilization and pest control – the researchers broke out the differences between machinery costs and hand labor hours required for thinning, pruning and harvesting for each variety.The prices for labor, materials, equipment and custom services are based on October 2019 figures.
Input and reviews were provided by UC Cooperative Extension farm advisors, specialists, grower cooperators and other agricultural associates. The authors describe the assumptions used to identify current costs for wine grape establishment and production, material inputs, cash and non-cash overhead. A ranging analysis table shows profits over a range of prices and yields.
The new studies are:
- 2019 - Sample Costs to Establish and Produce Winegrapes in the Southern San Joaquin Valley – Chardonnay Variety
- 2019 - Sample Costs to Establish and Produce Winegrapes in the Southern San Joaquin Valley –Cabernet Sauvignon Variety
- 2019 - Sample Costs to Establish and Produce Winegrapes in the Southern San Joaquin Valley – Rubired Variety
- 2019 - Sample Costs to Establish and Produce Winegrapes in the Southern San Joaquin Valley – Colombard Variety
All four winegrape studies can be downloaded from the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics website at http://coststudies.ucdavis.edu. Sample cost of production studies for many other commodities are also available on the website.
For information about local grape production, contact George Zhuang, UCCE viticulture advisor for Fresno County, at email@example.com; UCCE viticulture specialist Matt Fidelibus at firstname.lastname@example.org; UCCE viticulture specialist Kaan Kurtural at email@example.com; Karl Lund, UCCE viticulture advisor for Madera, Merced and Mariposa counties, at firstname.lastname@example.org; or Gabriel Torres, UCCE viticulture advisor for Kings and Tulare counties, at email@example.com.
The studies focus on four table grape varieties. There are two early maturing varieties, Flame Seedless and Sheegene-21, that begin harvest in July, one mid-season maturing, Scarlet Royal, and one late maturing, Autumn King, which begins harvest in October. The studies estimate the cost of establishing a table grape vineyard and producing fresh market table grapes.
“Labor costs are expected to rise with reduced labor availability, increases in minimum wage rates and new overtime rules that went into effect in 2018,” said Ashraf El-kereamy, UCCE viticulture advisor in Kern County and co-author of the cost studies.
“We included detailed costs for specialized hand labor of certain cultural and harvest operations.”
“The new California minimum wage law will gradually decrease the number of hours employees can work on a daily and weekly basis before overtime wages are required. There are additional stipulations for overtime wages and scheduling of work that are part of the new law,” said Daniel Sumner, director of the Agricultural Issues Center.
Input and reviews were provided by UC ANR Cooperative Extension farm advisors, specialists, grower cooperators, California Table Grape Commission and other agricultural associates. The authors describe the assumptions used to identify current costs for table grape establishment and production, material inputs, cash and non-cash overhead. A ranging analysis table shows profits over a range of prices and yields. Other tables show the monthly cash costs, the costs and returns per acre, hourly equipment costs, and the whole farm annual equipment, investment and business overhead costs.
- “2018 - Sample Costs to Establish and Produce Table Grapes in the Southern San Joaquin Valley – Flame Seedless, Early Maturing”
- “2018 - Sample Costs to Establish and Produce Table Grapes in the Southern San Joaquin Valley – Sheegene-21 (Ivory™), Early Maturing”
- “2018 - Sample Costs to Establish and Produce Table Grapes in the Southern San Joaquin Valley – Scarlet Royal, Mid-season Maturing”
- “2018 - Sample Costs to Establish and Produce Table Grapes in the Southern San Joaquin Valley – Autumn King, Late Maturing”
All four table grape studies can be downloaded from the UC Davis Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics website at http://coststudies.ucdavis.edu. Sample cost of production studies for many other commodities are also available at the website.
For information about local table grape production, contact UC Cooperative Extension viticulture specialist Matthew Fidelibus at firstname.lastname@example.org, UCCE viticulture advisor Ashraf El-kereamy in Kern County at email@example.com, UCCE entomology advisor David Haviland in Kern County at firstname.lastname@example.org, UCCE weed advisor Kurt Hembree in Fresno County at email@example.com, or UCCE viticulture advisor George Zhuang in Fresno County at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excitement over the new Sunpreme raisins was evident at UC Kearney Grape Day Aug. 8, 2017. As soon as the tram stopped, dozens of farmers and other industry professionals rushed over to the vineyard to take a close look and sample the fruit. Raisins pulled from the vine were meaty with very little residual seed. The flavor was a deep, sweet floral with a muscat note.
Sunpreme raisins, bred by now-retired USDA breeder David Ramming, promise a nearly labor-free raisin production system. Traditionally, raisins are picked and placed on paper trays on the vineyard floor to dry. The development of dried-on-the-vine varieties opened the door to greater mechanization. Workers would cut the stems above clusters of grapes, which then dry out in the canopy and are harvested mechanically. The new wrinkle with Sunpreme is that grapes ripen and then start to dry on their own - no cane cutting needed.
UC Cooperative Extension viticulture specialist Matthew Fidelibus and UCCE viticulture advisor George Zhuang are now studying the performance of Sunpreme grapes on different rootstocks and trellis systems at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center.
"We didn't know a lot about this variety," Fidelibus said. "We've found it to be very vigorous."
Fidelibus said the raisins take about a month to dry, and one challenge is the tendency for dried raisins to drop off the vine.
"We want to keep the self drying and stop self dropping," he said.
Ramming discovered the Sunpreme variety in a Thompson seedless table grape variety trial in the mid-1990s. He was going down the row, saw clusters of raisins and screeched to a stop. He had discovered Sunpreme. The variety is not yet available for commercial production.
Fighting nematodes with new solutions
Also during Grape Day 2017, UC Cooperative Extension nemotology specialist Andreas Westphal outlined research underway to keep nematodes at bay.
"There's no methyl bromide in commercial planting," Westphal said. The very effective fumigant was banned because of it's tendency to deplete ozone in the atmosphere and the risk to human health because of its toxicity. Many farmers have turned to Telone as an alternative, however it is expensive and its use is limited by a township cap.
Westphal is comparing alternative treatments for clearing the soil of the tiny worms that feed on vine roots and inhibit vineyard productivity.
"Some companies are coming up with new chemistry," Westphal said. "Our challenge in the perennial world is that the roots go so deep."
Seven new products and Telon were drenched in different replicated research plots. Some areas were left alone to serve as control. Three times the number of Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in the plots compared to a typical vineyard so researchers could take out plants twice and examine the roots for evidence of pests.
"We are excited to see significant growth differences among the treatments," Westphal said, pointing out a row that was visibly shorter and less vigorous. "It amazed me. Three years after treatment, and it never grew back out of it."
Work is still ongoing, but Westphal said he believes some chemical treatment could be available in the future to help reduce nematode pressure.
To deal with nematode populations, Westphal encouraged growers to sample soil and communicate with the diagnostic laboratory to determine what pest nematodes are in their vineyards, and then use that information for root stock selection.
"Growers should not forget the value of nematode-resistant rootstocks," he said. "Plant material needs to be chosen very carefully when different species of nematodes are present."