With the berries in his wine grape vineyards still green and hard at the middle of June, Fresno County, Calif., grower Trent Hammond wasn’t ready to assess the potential quality of this year’s crop. But based on cluster counts and eyeballing the vines during his daily walks down the rows, he’s expecting to harvest at least an average crop of about 12 tons to 14 tons per acre.
“It looks like it will be a decent crop,” he says. “Berry structure is healthy and strong, and the bunches should fill out nicely.”
His raisin crop “looks pretty decent, too,” he says. “Production should be about average, which would be up a little from last year.”
Hammond, who’s been growing grapes for the past 14 years, represents the fourth generation of his family to farm in the area west of Fresno. He grows 70 acres of wine grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Symphony) and 280 acres of raisin grapes (Thompson Seedless, Selma Pete, and Zante currants), along with 65 acres of almonds, as part of Hammond Family Vineyards near Biola, Calif.
He was a bit disappointed in the quality of his wine grapes last year. “We had a lot of foliage, and as a result, there were some small areas in the fields where both Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot didn’t get the sunlight they needed to color properly. The quality was off a bit.”
Last year’s early summer accelerated crop development, hurting the quality of his raisin grapes. This year, he’s hoping for a more drawn-out summer to allow them to mature longer for a more balanced fruit.”
He and other growers in the Fresno Irrigation District are in much better shape in terms of surface water deliveries than they had been expecting at the start of this year. Unlike, 2015, when they received only enough ditch water to irrigate for one month, they’re scheduled get enough for four months of irrigation.
“The rain, and not having to run our pumps, is making everything a little easier this year,” he says. “Many growers here are right at the water line with their old wells. In our case, we had to replace two old wells in the last two years. Not having to worry about water like we have been is a big plus this year.”
But, the rains and relatively mild temperatures have put his vineyards under extremely high pressure from powdery mildew this season, Hammond says. Because of their dense foliage, the threat has been especially highly in his Zante currants.
“These vines are very bushy, which makes it difficult to get good coverage of the berries,” he says. “Up to this point, we’ve made four or five fungicide sprays and three applications of dry sulfur on the wine and other raisin grape fields. But, we’ve treated the Zantes seven times with fungicides and four or five times with sulfur, and I can still find powdery mildew in those fields.”
As usual, Hammond has been seeing low numbers of leafrollers in scattered locations in his vineyards. Typically, insecticide applications keep them, as well as leafhoppers, well under control. But with the arrival of summer’s hot, dusty conditions, mites are always a concern, particularly in his raisin grape vineyards. Depending on population levels, he usually sprays for mites in early to mid-July.
“Spraying a few rows in from the field borders, and treating any occasionally hot spots, keeps mites pretty much under control in the wine grape vineyards,” he says. “But, controlling mites in the Thompson Seedless blocks usually requires spraying the entire field, Because of the high cost of miticides, I try to hold off spraying as long as possible.”
This year, Hammond is experimenting with the use of lysimeters in his wine grape vineyards and almond orchards to make more efficient use of fertilizers. Lysimeters, placed at depths of 12 inches and 24 inches below the soil surface, measure nutrient levels in the soil on a monthly basis to gauge the type and amount of nutrients available for the vines and trees. He compares these readings with results of quarterly leaf petiole testing to determine the amount of nutrients the crops have actually taken up.
“We’re trying to adjust our fertilizer application rates to account for differences in nutrient levels among various soil types so we provide only what is needed to meet the crop’s needs,” he says. “It’s much more precise than applying the same rate over the entire field. We’re already finding areas where we can dial down the amount of fertilizer we need to apply.”
Although prices for Merlot grapes have dropped some, Hammond is encouraged by the strong prices for his other wine grapes. But he’d like to see more stability in the raisin market.
“Last year, because of uncertainty about the direction of the market, it took growers and packers a long time to negotiate the raisin price. And, it took a long time for growers to get paid for their product. That’s nerve-wracking, and also makes it difficult to plan for the year ahead. Still, with the improved water situation and the way the weather has been going, 2016 should be a good year for us.”