“Viticulture isn’t just about plant science and fertilizer. You can know everything about biology and horticulture, but if your water pump breaks down on a 100 degree day and you don’t know how to fix it, you’re screwed.”
That’s James A. King, a viticulturist and agtech consultant specializing in technical farm operations. James takes pride in keeping things going, plants alive, equipment running. “They all kind of work in harmony in farming. That’s always what I wanted to learn more about. How the pump works. How the tractors work. You have to know how to make everything work.”
For over twenty years, James has kept things running smoothly at dozens of vineyards, navigating droughts and labor shortages, using automation to irrigate and fertilize more efficiently, and continuously embracing the latest and greatest technology to produce higher quality grapes.
From Selling Subarus to Growing Grapes
Perhaps not surprisingly, James’ background is both mechanical and agricultural. He grew up on a family farm outside San Francisco, but his family’s main business was their Subaru dealership.
He started out working in construction, building homes, but the commute into the city became a burden and he never liked the idea of working in a boom-and-bust industry. He wanted something stable and close by, ideally where he could work outdoors.
Eventually, as he took a look at his surroundings, it dawned on him, “It was impossible to not find a vineyard! And no matter what’s going on in the economy, you have to take care of your vineyard each year. It became a no-brainer.” Not long after, he enrolled in the viticulture program at Fresno State University and has been working in the industry ever since.
Different Strokes for Different Vineyards
When talking about vineyard management, James’ calm demeanor gives you the impression that he’s seen it all.
That’s because he has.
For two decades he managed 45 vineyards of all different shapes and sizes. From small, budget-conscious mom-and-pop operations all the way up to large, premium estates with big budgets, where an extremely high level of precision was required.
Getting to gather data and learn from such a wide range of vineyards helped accelerate James’ development as a viticulturist. He was able to watch different strategies and protocols play out, see what worked and what didn’t under different soil and weather conditions.
“Each year brings new challenges, different pests, climate problems or a labor crisis. You have to make quick decisions and modify your farming practices. You can’t just stick with the same strategy year after year.”
Adapting to changing conditions is essential to delivering what winemakers want—uniform vineyards of the best quality grapes possible. “That’s the most important thing.”
“But it’s tricky stuff. If you don’t know what you’re doing with your irrigation, spray, labor, fertilizer and all the rest, you can really mess up a vineyard.”
New Problems, New Solutions
In more recent years, James has had to tackle the twin challenges of a lack of water and a lack of workers. “Between the labor crisis and the drought, we’ve been taking punches in every direction, and I still have to produce a high quality crop for my clients.”
Luckily, he was an early innovator in automation. “When I first started, of the 45 vineyards I was managing, only six had some kind of automation, and even then just a simple timer for irrigating. I couldn’t send someone to turn on a valve every four hours, so I started automating as much as I possibly could.”
But back then there were no solutions built specifically for agriculture, so he had to borrow timers and valves made for golf courses and figure out how to control the systems remotely from his computer.
Finding a better way to irrigate was essential, even before the most recent water shortages, because timing is critical and he was always dealing with limits on water flow and labor.
“When you’re going into a heatwave, you need to make sure the vines have water or you’re going to get raisins. But if it takes you three days to irrigate the whole vineyard and you don’t get an adequate heads up, you can end up in a tight spot.”
These days, James is pumped about the fact that solutions and software are being built with the ag lifestyle in mind. He dreams about being able to control everything and perfectly adjust all his irrigation rates before a heatwave with just a couple clicks of his mouse, no complicated spreadsheets required.
On the labor side, it’s been more difficult in recent years to find people to drive tractors and spray for mildew, especially because it’s a job that requires skill and working a lot of nights. Yet, “you can’t have a successful operation without someone driving a tractor spraying.”
That’s what led James to dig further into hybrid autonomy, and start advising companies who transform tractors and other machinery into autonomous and remote-controlled equipment.
“We should’ve been doing this five years ago. Now we’re playing catch up and learning all this technology, but I’m really looking forward to seeing these machines readily available at our local dealers in the seasons to come.”
High Stress, All Love
While some people might be discouraged by the constant challenges, James seems energized by them.
“You gotta love every aspect of it.” And he does.
“From the minute they push til the minute you pick, growing grapes is a wild ride.” James loves the whirlwind from start to finish. Every season. Every stressful moment.
In the spring, he loves getting up at midnight to check for frost. “You can lose a whole vineyard if you’re not careful. With a frost alarm going off, you have to act quickly. It’s a high stress situation, but I like it. You feel like a superhero.”
He loves buying tractors. He loves the pressure that comes when a machine breaks during harvest and everyone is waiting on you to get it back up and running. “The winter is great, too, because you get time in the shop to work on equipment.”
But perhaps most of all, he loves working with the great people who come from all over the world to grow wine and the stories they bring with them. “Working with someone side-by-side twelve hours a day, seeing that they have the same passion that you do. It’s rewarding to know they love it, too.”
Helping People and Making It All Work
“There are a lot of places where you can help people. That’s what I like most. With so much going on, so many details, there’s always another problem to solve, something else to fix. It’s not just about farming grapes. It’s about helping people and making the whole system work.”
That’s what’s at the heart of James’ philosophy and what makes him such a great viticulturist. He’s a systems thinker. He doesn’t see the land and vines, water and fertilizer, equipment and people as separate things, but rather as parts of a greater whole, a system of interconnected pieces that must work together to produce high quality crops.
James is obsessed with optimizing the entire system, keeping each and every part running smoothly, making great grapes and even better memories in the process.
Thanks for fixing the water pumps, James. Without people like you, we’d be screwed.