By Thom Betts, Tim Weigle, Kim Knappenberger
Thom Betts is a fifth generation grape grower in Westfield, New York. He and his parents currently operate 188 acres of Concord grapes. As grower/owners in the National Grape Cooperative, their harvest is delivered to Welch’s where it becomes Concord juice, jam, jellies and other grape related products. He and his family have been involved with the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program since the late 1980’s, approximately 30 years, and have been very involved in the Efficient Vineyard project, even before it was funded by USDA/NIFA. The Betts Family has been scanning their vineyards for 4 years now using the NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) technology. For the first 3 years they used loaner units from the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program, but soon saw the value of the information from the scans, and have since purchased their own unit. This allows Thom to scan the entire 188 acres approximately 3 to 4 times per year in an effort develop baseline information on the best time of the growing season to collect data crucial for a number of parameters needed to implement variable rate management. Using this technology Thom has been able to estimate the yield for their entire vineyard operation with an error of only 5% or less for the past three years. Betts Farms has also been using a yield monitor on their harvester for the past three years. This is calibrated by the weigh slips from National Grape when the grapes are delivered to the processing facility. Thom hopes that the Efficient Vineyard project will eventually allow the average grower to share their acreage maps on a computer with extension agents, allowing them to develop vineyard blocks that are more uniform, easier to manage, and more profitable.
The more Thom learns about his vineyards from his involvement in this project, the more questions come up. He is often wondering what else can be done with the data? He sees variable rate thinning being done on the fly, and wonders what other uses can there be for variable rate mechanization. Prescription fertilizer applications and targeted rootworm sprays are two management practices that are in his sights for development of data and equipment for implementation.
Thom believes that a grower needs three seasons of NDVI maps before implementing variable rate technology. It is imperative to validate these maps, no matter what is being measured. According to Thom, “A map is only a pretty picture until you validate the data for the parameter you are looking at, be it color in table grapes, crop size, or soils in a vineyard block.” The amount of information that is available can be overwhelming until you start breaking it into pieces, but working with the data will provide information that is necessary to maintain profitability in any vineyard operation