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    How to Run a Vineyard in a Drought

    How to run a vineyard in a drought blog image
    by Bennett Fitzgibbon

    Despite unprecedented snow melts and flooding in California this past winter, drought is still a very real threat to vineyards and wineries across the state. As climate change continues its unforgiving trek forward, vintners will have to deal with not just more potential flooding, but also even more severe droughts when they circle back around.

    If you haven’t already had to deal with drought or water restrictions at your vineyard, it’s inevitable you will at some point in the future. That’s why we’ve put together a list of practical tips to help you run your grape vines under these conditions.  

    Here are some of the steps you can take to ensure your vineyard survives in a drought:

    Conserve Water

    It may seem incredibly obvious, but conserving water during drought conditions should be your top priority. Without water, nothing else you do will matter much.

    One way you can save water is through smart irrigation. This technology is becoming increasingly common not just across vineyards, but across farms around the world. Smart irrigation can help you understand your specific soil’s moisture requirements through data and technological insights. 

    Using this knowledge, you can water as much or as little as your vineyard needs in a precise, targeted manner. Smart irrigation can also help you monitor your water. 

    Another way to conserve your water is through mulching. While definitely not a new practice in the agricultural industry, mulching is one of the best ways to reduce water loss around your vines because it keeps soil evaporation to a minimum. Mulch cover helps shade your soil from sun-induced evaporation. It also helps keep moisture in the ground by protecting it from wind, which can also cause water to evaporate faster. 

    Overall, mulching creates a barrier between your watered soil and the world above, causing the ground to stay cooler during the summer (which can help you significantly in hotter drought conditions). 

    Maintain Soil

    Speaking of soil, another key way to safeguard your vineyard against water shortages is to properly maintain the dirt your grapes are growing in. The better maintained your soil is, the more likely you are to keep the quality and integrity of your grapes consistent even in a water-restricted setting.

    We already talked about the benefits of mulching to help keep water in your soil, but another practice to consider is using cover crops during the fall and winter (depending on where your vineyard is located). Cover crops help keep moisture in the ground like mulching, but also provide the added benefit of introducing more organic matter into the soil. This can be especially important if your dirt is lacking a specific nutrient that needs a boost.

    As for soil nutrients, it’s important to pay attention to the salinity of your soil. Salt accumulations can become a problem with lack of rainfall during droughts, which ultimately leads to higher toxicity in your soil and higher chance of your grapes growing poorly. Irrigating and draining properly, as well as supplementing your soil with appropriate nutrients or fertilizer during the off-season, will help you avoid major salinity problems.

    Finally, you can consider tilling the soil between your rows, but only to a point. Tilling too much can actually cause a loss of nutrients and water; researchers in the Pacific Northwest found it’s more effective to do a single pass than try to create a “dust mulch” when aiming to preserve soil integrity. Not all vineyards need to till, however, so consider if this is necessary for your location.

    Create Shade

    When the sun is glaring down on you, where do you go for protection? That’s right – anywhere shady. Looking for shade is almost second nature for both humans and animals alike. Why wouldn’t grapes benefit from the same thing?

    Droughts usually bring with them not just lack of water, but unending exposure to the sun and its harmful side effects. Too much sunlight can burn leaves, damage vines, and overall prohibit proper grape growth. It’s only logical to add some shade above your fruit to help protect them from excessive rays, just as you would to your own body. 

    Canopy management is one way to provide much-needed shade to your grape bunches. An Australian study about managing vineyards during heatwaves discovered that only one good layer of leaf canopy is needed to protect bunches from the worst sun radiation. You can also maintain shading through good pruning practices that don’t destroy shade canopies. 

    Shading can also be accomplished through a variety of planting techniques and equipment, like artificial shading, trellis choice, row orientation, and reflective leaf sprays. It’s up to you to experiment with these options in your vineyard to see what works best during drier conditions.

    Consider Varietals

    Last but not least is the difficult discussion about grape varietals. Many vineyards already have established vines that they don’t easily want to get rid of; however, to survive in a potentially hotter, drier future, vintners need to consider swapping to more drought-tolerant grapes.

    Scientists have been working to study and produce heat-tolerant grape varietals for years. They’re experimenting with different rootstocks to see which ones are better able to reach farther down in the ground for water, which ones handle higher salt levels, and which ones produce thicker leaves and therefore conserve more water naturally. 

    The good news is there’s progress being made in creating grape types that not only tolerate heat, but can also potentially thrive in warmer conditions. It will be up to vineyard managers and growers to determine how and when they should start switching over to these varietals if they want their vineyards to survive upcoming (and inevitable) droughts and if they want to continue doing something they’re passionate about despite the climate change around them. 

    At Lumo, we understand the stress droughts can bring to you and your vineyards. That’s why we help you automate and track your water usage as a key way to battle brutal droughts. Contact us here or email us at [email protected] to talk about your irrigation needs.

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