Favorable March weather hastens SJV bud break

Favorable March weather hastens SJV bud break

A spring tour through the SJV this year revealed a growing problems with grape growers; a growing shortage of quality labor. The telltale sign: many unpruned vineyards at bud break.  

Two weeks of unusually warm March weather pushed buds to start opening about a week earlier than last year in the Tulare County wine grape vineyards of CSR Farming, reports J.R. Shannon, an owner and operations manager.

Based in Visalia, Calif., CSR farms citrus, tree nut and row crops, including about 5,000 acres of wine grapes in Tulare County and in San Joaquin County near Stockton. Shannon manages the Visalia area vineyards

His French Colombard vines were the first to bud break. That was in the second week of March. But by the first few days of spring, the young shoots had grown to about 6 inches. He expects the last of his varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon, to bud out by the end of March.

“Everything looks good right now, and the vines are progressing rapidly,” Shannon says.

First on his list of springtime chores it getting a jump on vine mealybug. Unlike some growers who use foliar-applied pesticides to control this pest, he runs a systemic pesticide through his drip system that is taken up the roots of the vines.

“We’ve used the foliar materials in the past,” Shannon says. “But, we’ve reduced populations of mealybugs to where we can control them using a soil-applied product. It also helps that other growers in the area have been able to lower the number of mealybugs in their fields, too.”


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Once the vines start to bloom, he’ll be on the lookout for mites.

His long-term program of rotating among different fungicide chemistries and including wettable sulfur treatments has proven effective in keeping powdery mildew under control.

Like last year, Shannon is starting the new grape season short on rainfall. As a result, he began his flood and micro-sprinkler irrigation in mid-February. At the same time, he’s prepared to receive no more than about 25 percent to 30 percent of his water allocation from some of the irrigation districts that supply his ranches. He’s also braced to pay more for the water – 60 percent more in at least one case. “We got a letter the other day from one district that charged $50 an acre-foot last year saying the price this year has gone up to $80,” Shannon says.

That means he’ll be pumping more from a water table that continues to drop.

Labor worries

Even more worrisome to Shannon than the water situation is the lack of good workers and the rising cost of labor. For example, his crews finished pruning operations by the second week of March. That was much later than usual, he says, because he couldn’t get the number of workers he needed.

“If you took a short drive around the valley in the middle of March, you’d see vineyards that still hadn’t been pruned yet, but were starting to push,” says Shannon, who also serves as secretary of the California Association of Winegrape Growers and chairman of the CAWG Foundation.

Grape growers aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch.

“Over the past few years we’ve seen that, as the season goes on and different commodities start coming in, it’s getting harder and harder for growers to get the type of crews needed to do the job,” Shannon says. “In our case, we’re fortunate, because we have good relationships with the farm labor contractor who takes care of us. But, it’s becoming more difficult for some of the smaller growers to count on getting workers.

“Our country needs some type of guest worker program that will provide the workforce required to produce our food.”

If you would like to read more about California grape growing, subscribe to GrapeLine, the exclusive electronic newsletter sponsored twice a month by Chemtura. To sign up, go to the Newsletter Sign Up box at the bottom-right of the Western Farm Press home page (westernfarmpress.com). It’s free and e-mailed the second and fourth weeks of each month from March through October.

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