Over the years as Farm Advisor here (gosh, 19 years this October) my job has changed in many ways with the times. Recently, I have answered more and more inquiries from those who own a parcel and are wondering about agricultural development or those who are looking to purchase. The foothills, it seems to me, are becoming impacted by a growing California population and those who may be priced out of other locations and seek a rural lifestyle.
But the "what can I grow?" question, as I call it, is more complicated to answer than some anticipate. The key is to not have any preconceived notions (this isn't the Valley nor is it the North Coast) and to be open to exploring the opportunities, and challenges, the foothill landscape offers. The foothills are kind of like Nebraska, whose new slogan is "Honestly, it's not for everyone" (true!)
The first step to evaluating a property's suitability for agricultural development is to understand the natural resources that parcel offers. The most important: soils, water, microclimate. Enter an amazing resource...the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) Web Soil Survey! I recently received word that after 12 (or more) years of work, the Calaveras and Tuolumne county soil series maps have been added to our NRCS database and included in the Web Soil Survey (WSS). Calaveras and Tuolumne had been the only 2 California counties for which the soils were not mapped previously. This work, led by our local Tuolumne county NRCS office headed by Theresa Kunch and her team of soil scientists, represents a wonderful resource for anyone interested in land, for any reason.
Last fall I asked Andrew Brown, NRCS Soil Scientist and one of the staff in the Sonora office, to help me explain local
Whenever I get the "what can I grow on my property?" question, I encourage the landowner to dig a soil pit to get a good look at their soils, BEFORE they plant. Soil depth, texture and percent rock (some of the foothill soils have alot of rocks!) all contribute to a soil's water holding capacity. Soil is, in some ways, a key to water, and water is a limiting factor in agricultural productivity. Understanding the soil will help greatly with planting decisions, such as spacing, rootstock, and soil amendments.
Take a look at the soil survey map available online, then go out and dig your pits. Using the WSS may not be easy the first time around, although there are excellent instructions (begin by defining your AOL "area of interest") on the web page. I also really like the UC Davis California Soil Web Resource app, created by our UCANR Toby O'Geen and his lab and is newly updated for use on a mobile phone or tablet. I just bookmarked it on my phone homepage, for easy access when I'm out in the field. Check it out!
"Beautiful acidity" in the later red varieties was the common theme as the cooler August and September temperatures
Although some foothill Zinfandel remained unsold, a continuing trend following last year's Zinfandel dive, demand for Cedarville's organic fruit is up. "Buyers are very interested in our Zin", Jonathan said, "and some winemakers in the area are showing a renewed interest in Cab. as well, which is so great to see".
Other than in frosted locations, yields came in at average to slightly above, although crop estimates may have been misleading early on.
Challenges of the season included a high powdery mildew index in the cooler, higher elevations (perhaps the price paid for the payoff in slower ripening later), and mites, especially in some Zinfandel blocks and often brought on by heat and drought conditions. Some growers buck the miticide train and choose to use biological control to combat mite outbreaks. "We've been releasing 6 spotted thrips for years", Ann Kraemer, Shake Ridge Vineyards and Yorba Wines, told me. 6 spotted thrips is a generalist predator, which means it will prey on any soft bodied insect it can, including leafhopper nymphs. It has the ability to get under the webbing of spider mites to attack them, making it an excellent mite predator!
Concern about smoke due to the Ferguson and Mendocino Complex fires made for an "oppressive" July-when some days air particulate matter counts were deemed unsafe to work and crews were sent home early-all blew away by August as clear skies ushered in the first whites.
As we made it through her vineyard blocks, Ann made one more keen observation. "There were fewer birds this year. My owl boxes are empty and even when putting out netting I noticed there didn't seem to be as many birds as usual." One (unproven) theory: the high summer smoke affected the bird population, causing them to fly less or leave.
Now that the fruit is almost all in, let's hope the rainy season comes, and our owls return, soon.
Tools for scheduling irrigation fall into three categories: we can monitor the weather, the soil or the plant. Monitoring weather includes the classic estimation of crop evapotranspiration (ET) using reference ET data (ET0), based on the amount of water an area of well-watered grass uses, and multiplying that number by a suitable crop coefficient (Kc) to determine how much water a crop has used during any given time period. The idea being, if you can estimate what a crop has used, you will know how much water to replace with irrigation. The reference ET0 depends on temperature and other local weather factors and is available online (for free, you only need to create a login) from
If we were growing corn or apples or almonds or practically anything else it would end there; you would have the ET0 from CIMIS and a crop coefficient given based on research and you would multiply the two and then, voila!, you would have an estimate of how much water your crop has used. But alas, winegrape production is more complicated. This is because winegrapes, as most of you know, are not irrigated to "full ET". We typically impose an irrigation deficit to winegrapes at key times of the year to increase the quality of the crop and intensify flavors in the berry skins. So, for winegrapes, we multiply the reference ET0 by a crop coefficient and then by yet another factor for "stress". The stress factor is one that a grower determines (say, 70%).
The final equation is: ETgrapes-stress=ET0 * Kc-grapes* Kstress
Furthermore, the crop coefficient is not one number, but a number multiplied by the amount of shading present. This grape coefficient was developed based on research conducted in the Valley (where it is FLAT) by our very own UC Irrigation Specialist Larry Williams and Jim Ayars, in which they found a good correlation between the percent shading and the crop coefficient. The formula they published in 2005 is Kc grapes= 0.017 * % shaded area.
But how do we get shaded area? And does this formula really work on sloped vineyards? While many growers may eyeball
There are several ways we can monitor the plant to determine vine water needs. One of the most tried and true is to measure stem or leaf water potential using a pressure chamber. Guilia Marino, a plant physiologist who hails from Sicily, demonstrated using a pressure chamber to measure vine stress. To use a pressure chamber, a leaf is bagged (when measuring STEM water potential), allowed to equilibrate for at least 10 minutes, then the petiole is cut and the cut bagged leaf is placed in a chamber. The chamber is sealed, pressure is applied, and a hand lens is used to note the pressure at which water is pressed out of the cut petiole. Guilia likened using the pressure chamber to taking the blood pressure of the vine. If the vine is under alot of stress, it will take more pressure (higher negative reading) to force water out of the xylem of the cut petiole. I've done some work using the pressure chamber and I think it is an excellent tool for growers to use in the foothills, because it avoids the variability we frequently see in soils and focuses on what the plant is actually receiving.
The Zaccaria Team ended our field day by discussing how critically important it is for growers to begin using a tool, if they are not already, to better understand water use in their own vineyards. Not only for improving winegrape quality, but as competition for water resources increases, the cost of water will surely continue to rise (consider the cost of running a pump) and with it the increase in regulations that require growers to demonstrate their good stewardship of water. Our growing future depends on it.
On a farm call recently, I was reminded of a pest I've come to know pretty well since my appointment here in the foothills: Grape Phylloxera (Daktulosphaeria vitifoliae). I'm still surprised when growers are taken aback from the discovery of Phylloxera on their own-rooted vines that are declining ("REALLY? PHYLLOXERA?"). Yes, really. When I first started here as Farm Advisor for viticulture many folks told me that there was NO Phylloxera in the foothills, even though my predecessor, Donna Hirschfelt, knew that phylloxera was here and had spoken about it. And although vines in decline can be due to many different pests (canker, gophers, and Armillaria to name a few), often when I come upon own rooted vines (i.e. those who are not grafted onto rootstock and so have Vitis vinifera as the root) I am able to find phylloxera on the roots.
How can this tiny insect take down these large vines? Phylloxera is an aphid like insect that feeds on the roots
Phylloxera is native to N. America, so no, we did not get phylloxera from France. Rather, we unwittingly gave it to the Europeans for which they will never forgive us. When feeding, the phylloxera cause swelling of the roots and their feeding damages the root system so that fungi can infect and decay the roots. This is why phylloxera infested vines are so stunted and stressed, after awhile, they have little functional root system left. Thank goodness the plant breeders have come to the rescue to breed hybrids of other Vitis species for our rootstocks, such as V. rupestris (St. George) and V. riparia which are resistant (but NOT immune) to phylloxera. Andy Walker, our very own UC Davis Viticulture breeder, gave an excellent talk on rootstocks and phylloxera a few years ago at my 2013 Foothill Grape Day. His presentation is posted on my webpage with all the other Foothill Grape Day presentations our speakers have granted me the OK to post. A great resource if you ever want to check back for some fun facts!
By the way, there are many ways that phylloxera can spread. Since our rootstock hybrids are not immune, phylloxera can enter a vineyard on the roots of grafted vines. From there, phylloxera nymphs or crawlers will periodically climb their way up to the soil surface, where they can easily be carried by the wind. They can also be picked up on the bottoms of boots and equipment, which is why I always carry a spray bottle of clorox in my truck to spray my boot bottoms off after being in a phylloxera field.
A few years ago, Kent Daane (UC Berkeley Entomology Specialist and biological control whiz) wondered if phylloxera might be spreading around leafroll (this was back before we knew the ID of red blotch). I collaborated with Kent and his then assistant Christina Wistrom in a study where we looked at foothill sites that had both phylloxera AND grapevine leafroll virus. Thankfully, we found no evidence that phylloxera spreads leafroll (but mealybugs, including grape and Gill's mealybug, do).
As own-rooted vines that are many years old are declining, and as the cost of farming these vines continues to increase, we are seeing many older vineyards being replanted in the foothills. This is sad to me, mainly because of the family history in many of these vineyards that are as much as 130 years old! Some winemakers would also argue that these vines produce superior wine, although I think this is in part due to the low yields making fruit highly concentrated (and, for most, growers are paid by the ton, not so much by the age of the vineyard). But phylloxera is a pest that cannot be managed indefinitely, it eventually will win. Some growers choose to apply a systemic insecticide for phylloxera management, but these do not kill the phylloxera eggs. So, we are gradually seeing our historic foothill vineyard landscape change as older, historic own-rooted vineyards are replaced.
Change, though, can sometimes bring unexpected and good things (I often have to remind myself of this). Rootstocks today provide growers a large choice of attributes that can help dial in quality for a given "site capacity". Replanting also gives growers and their winemakers an opportunity to try new varieties that may have a better consumer niche and price for the grower. And, most importantly, the increase in YIELD that comes with phylloxera free vineyards will allow our foothill industry to stay vibrant and alive!
Why all of this vole damage now? Voles love tall grass, which protects them from their natural raptor predators. Our heavy rainfall in 2016-2017 and in the current season produced a large amount of grassy groundcover. If this tall grass is not controlled in the tree or vine row, it provides the perfect environment for voles-who make very shallow "runs"-to nibble on tree and vine trunks. This nibbling can be just below the soil-trunk line, and isn't always obvious. On a farm call to visit a mature olive orchard, the canopy was so
But truly, vole damage is no laughing matter. Especially for young orchards and vineyards, where voles can kill the trees and vines. Young vines with severe vole damage can turn red-sometimes being confused with virus
So, what can growers do to manage voles? #1: keep the vegetation down near the trunks of vines and trees. Cover crops should be mowed and vegetation kept down in between the rows and on the borders. Beware of adjacent open spaces, meadows, or other lands where voles may be entering. Look for vole damage and monitor regularly-look for burrow holes and runs. Vole populations can reach a high peak and then crash, or they can continue to grow and cause problems. Activity can be noted by the freshness of the runs, bare ground, pellets, and fur. Exclusion using a tree guard barrier or along the fence line is difficult. Since voles burrow just below ground, the barrier needs to be buried at least 6 inches to be effective. Traps can be used effectively in the vole runs, since voles don't deviate much from their habit trails. Rodenticides in baits (anti-coagulants that require multiple feedings or zinc phosphide) are restricted use-check with your agricultural commissioner before applying. You will need a permit or a licensed applicator to use them. UCCE Vertebrate Specialist Roger Baldwin (whose cool website you should really check out), is interested in getting an anti-feedant registered for use against vole damage in CA. This could be a very helpful tool, and I encourage you to fill out Roger's very brief survey here if you have voles and want a new tool to fight them.
You can find more information on voles by reading Roger's Chapter here.
Until next time...