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Industry Focus

Lake Erie Growers Work with Researchers to Develop Technology for the Grape Industry

By Tim Weigle and Kim Knappenberger, NYS IPM Program, LERGP

Thom Betts (right) discusses variable rate irrigation systems in a Gallo Wine Company vineyard, Lodi, California. Photo by Terry Bates. 

Portland, NEW YORK -- One of the goals of the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program (LERGP) is to ensure that program research is useful to grape growers.   To ensure this happens, grower participation is incorporated into research projects from the very beginning. 

A good example of this is the current multi-year research project led by Dr. Terry Bates, Cornell University, and funded by the USDA/NIFA Specialty Crops Research Initiative (SCRI).  This project involves research on sensor technology and how it can be used to increase grower profitability and sustainability.  It also involves a technology outreach and adoption component. 

It is in this area of the project where grower cooperators, like Thom Betts, have been key in helping to shape the project’s research results into grower- ready tools.  

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. The Betts family has been involved with the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program since the late 1980’s and started participating in the Efficient Vineyard project, even before it was funded by USDA/NIFA.

The Betts Family has been scanning their vineyards for four years now using the NDVI (normalized differential vegetative index) technology.  For the first three years they used loaner units from the LERGP, but they soon saw the value of the information from the scans.  They have since purchased their own unit to scan the entire 188 acres approximately three to four times per year.  This helps develop baseline information on the best time of the growing season to collect data crucial for a number of metrics needed to implement variable rate management. Using this technology, they can estimate the yield for their entire vineyard operation with an error of only 5% or less.

Betts Farms has also been using a yield monitor on their grape 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.  Betts 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 Betts learns about his vineyards from his involvement in this project, the more questions come up.  He often wonders 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. 

Betts 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 Betts, “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.

The Lake Erie Regional Grape Program is a cooperative effort between Cornell and Penn State Universities; the participating Cornell Cooperative Extension Associations of Chautauqua, Erie, Niagara and Cattaraugus Counties in New York and Erie County in Pennsylvania; and participating industry partners National Grape Cooperative (Welch’s), Constellation Brands and Walkers Fruit Basket.  The LERGP extension team provides research-based educational programming for commercial grape growers throughout the year at venues across the Lake Erie grape belt. 

For more information on LERGP, call 716-792-2800 or visit our website at

Editor's Note: This press release was also featured in Morning Ag Clips.