Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The Day in the Life of a Chardonnay Vine

I'm driving through my vineyard this morning doing my usual scouting for whatever may present itself and it occurs to me that some folks have never seen this before. The life of a grapevine. For a brief moment, I thought a "Grape-Cam" was a good idea.... but it quickly passed on as who really, would want to watch a grape camera...

But since we are so early in the season, I thought I would start maybe a monthly " life of a chardonnay vine" so you can see how the vine grows, matures, produces, and ripens fruit in a single season.

I picked chardonnay because its probably the most familiar grapevine we grow that folks would recognize the name. Our vineyard which is 22 acres has 8 different commercial varieties and 24 research varieties for the University of Maryland.

So here it is April 23, 2013 and this is a Chardonnay grapevine. You can see a couple things.

1.  We had bud break last week. Chardonnay is an early variety and is typically in bud first. Budbreak is determined by soil temperature and variety. Our soils have not been warming up all that quickly so we are a bit late from usual budbreak timeframe.

2. We have "apical dominance" which is the tendency for the buds further out from the trunk to be longer and more developed than those closer to the trunk. One premise is that the energy of carbohydrates is pushed through the plant's vascular system toward the outer buds. You can see here that although the last bud on the far right did not "push", the second to the last bud is the most developed as compared to the buds to the left of the frame. The 3rd from the last bud also did not "push" but I can't say I paid attention to that when I was taking pictures so I will have to go back and investigate.

3. We cane pruned which means we laid down a new cordon arm, also known as the "fruiting arm". This is where all the fruit will hang this coming season. Cane pruning allows us to get rid of last years' cordon arm which may have residual spores or bacteria, and lay down fresh wood. We cane prune all our red varieties and all our vinifera varieties. We spur prune all our white hybrid varieties.

4. We have no neighbors... Yup pretty much. In a 4+ mile stretch of our road, there are 7 homes, 3 of which are inhabited by our family :)

What I don't see yet is frost damage. We had a frost yesterday morning. The kind where you have to scrape the windshield. So while I don't see any frost damage yet, I am watching closely as these young buds are so tender and so susceptible. We lost nearly 40% of our crop last year due to frost. I really don't want a repeat.

So I will try to remember which plant this was (don't worry, I marked it) and you can follow this Chardonnay plant from April through September when we will be harvesting the fruit and delivering it to the winery!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Investing in Sustainability

As a result of the NY Times article and my response in my last blog Stay Calm and Farm On, I received several comments via facebook, email, or twitter about issues of sustainability on our farm. One thread of many comments was the definition of sustainability and how can a modern, conventional farm, call ourselves sustainable.  Here was one of the comments:

"If the farming focus is not on the health of the soil as foundation (ie. biodynamic or organic farming) then it's about destructive attempts at manipulating nature for profit ("intellectual property"). This at the expense of our environment as a whole. "

For 3 generations now, we have invested in sustainability. Our main focus has always been our soils. We have been planting cover crops, green manures, and no-till farming since the 1960's. We have always practiced Integrated Pest Management (IPM) because it's simply more cost-effective and good stewardship. The perception is that these are practices used only in organic agriculture. To us, they are simply the way we operate our farm. Always have, always will.

My father-in-law on an over the row, no-till Hiboy, 1964. High tech for its day.

Today, we continue to invest heavily in equipment and technology to help us not only be more efficient but also to continue to improve our soils, use less resources, lower our CO2 emissions, and improve our water quality. Sustainability does not meet a cookie-cutter, one-size fits all model, or apply to only one type of farming system or practice.  Soil types, climate, topography, equipment, resources, access to capital and amount of debt carried by a family farm are all factors that contribute to its sustainability.

So today, we were top-dressing winter wheat using our GreenSeeker technology and it ties in nicely with my comments about sustainability on our farm.

My husband, Hans driving the sprayer outfitted with GreenSeeker technology. He is applying  fertilizer which is called "top-dressing" the winter wheat crop.

How do we know it requires fertilizer?
This amazing piece of technology called the "GreenSeeker" tells us!

On the spray booms are optical sensors that detect the level of chlorophyll in the plants. Chlorophyll is the molecule that absorbs sunlight and synthesizes carbohydrates for energy for plant growth. We know this as photosynthesis, a process all plants are dependent upon for health.

This monitor inside the cab shows the driver the Normalized Difference Vegetative Index "NDVI". 
The color variation of chlorophyll is detected by the optical sensors and reflected on the monitor by a color range from brown to green. Green means there is more chlorophyll, yellow is in the middle, and brown is the least amount. The GreenSeeker applies a variable rate of fertilizer specific to the area that the optical sensor detected.

So you can see here, the spray boom with the optical sensors and the variation in the rate of the nozzles applying fertilizer heavier in some areas and less in others. Not all  nozzles run at the same rate and will turn off all together if no fertilizer is needed.

By practicing precision agriculture, we have both an environmental and an economic impact. The variable rate fertilizer application allows us to apply only what the plant needs based on its chlorophyll content. In some areas, that meant a savings of over 15 pounds of nitrogen per acre. The plant utilizes this application more efficiently resulting in less fertilizer remaining in the soil which ultimately can  improve water quality. 

GreenSeeker is just one piece of equipment that our family farm invested in to add more tools to our toolbox of sustainable farming practices. We have heavily invested in conservation equipment and practices on our farm as our philosophy is to treat our soil for what it is, our livelihood and the future for our children. We have taken the best of all farming system practices and combined them with some of the latest modern technology to create a sustainable family farm that we are proud to call home.

As we go through the growing season this year, I hope to highlight some of the other approaches we use to be environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable on our modern family farm. 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Stay Calm & Farm On!

Today started with an interesting twist. My son has had a difficult week with issues at school. This morning I told him my best advice was to "stay calm and study on." Little did I know that in a short time, this saying would come back and help me deal with attention from an article in a national newspaper. . As I drank my morning coffee, I opened my email to find an article that included me in the New York Times. It was shared on a listserv by a member of the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group to which I belong (remember I was an RD before I was a farmer). WHAT? Why on earth would the New York Times care about me and why would I be included in an article?  So here is the link to the article:

The crux of the problem with this article and the way it came about was that NO ONE contacted me to inquire about my business relationships or to verify what was being written about me. This was an absolute broadside. I've never heard of Stephanie Strom, nor did she contact me to confirm the information she received from whatever source she thought was valid. Sadly, this illustrates what is wrong with today's journalists, the lack of integrity. A story is a story for the headlines and screw the accuracy because accuracy would make it a non-story.

THEN, I got my first tweet about the article! It said: 

"@FarmGirlJen Why are you in bed with #Monsanto #GMO?" 

(Oh no! What if my husband finds out?.....) 

This tweet came from a woman who calls herself a "Spiritual Teacher & Healer." Not sure she remembered her spiritualness when she tweeted me. I didn't find it very healing nor did she try to find out the facts first before she sent out that tweet. Only in her 2nd tweet did she ask what the facts were.... REALLY?

I have been speaking about agriculture, biotechnology, and farming systems for many years now.I  show yield data from our farm comparing our conventional, organic (formerly), and biotech yields and methods, talk about our farming practices and why we do what we do and how its changed over the generations. Its all about how we make decisions on our family farm and why.  When I give presentations, I  list the companies that my family farm does business with and any background about me that folks who are narrow-minded will assume makes me biased or otherwise unable to be objective, as was noted in the NY Times article. So what I did do was fully disclose all of our family farm's business associations with seed companies, chemical companies, commodity groups, and national and regional agri-businesses on the disclosure form for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. I don't personally have direct dealings with all of them but I knew that if I did not list them all, that something like this would happen. Lo and behold..... it did. Did anyone else feel obligated to disclose where they purchase supplies for their business? ( By the way, I buy my paper from Staples, and this computer came from CompUSA. I buy groceries at Food Lion and shop at Tractor Supply for my clothes... I'm a farm girl not a fashionista). I also listed the prize money I won for being chosen as one of America's Farm Mom of the Year.  I did not disclose that the funds went into my kids college funds and to local non-profits including my church food pantry. Shame on me! 

For the record, I do not know if Monsanto has a "test farmer" program but if they do, I and my family farm am not part of it. We do LOTS of on-farm research which I blogged about last year: Growing Answers: On-Farm Research

So after my initial shock, I adopted my own advice that I had given my son but adapted it to suit my situation.  Today my mantra was: 
  "Stay calm and farm on."