Five questions for Terry Bates
Terry Bates is a native of West Irondequoit, New York and earned a B.S. in Biology at St. John Fisher before moving to Penn State to pursue a M.S. in Horticulture and PhD in Plant Physiology. His graduate studies focused on plant mineral nutrition and the root biology of Arabidopsis and bean under limiting phosphorus availability. Terry joined the Horticulture Department at Cornell in January 1998 and continued research on plant nutrition and root biology in Concord grapevines at the Fredonia Vineyard Laboratory. In 2009, the Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory (CLEREL) was constructed and Terry was appointed CLEREL director where research and extension activities continue on juice grape, wine grape, hops, willow, and vegetable production.
What inspired you to work with grapes?
I was fortunate to have a few outstanding professors who sparked my interest in plant biology research. Dr. Melvin Wentland was my plant biology and ecology professor at St. John Fisher who supported plant physiology concepts with real world applications. Dr. Jonathan Lynch at Penn State taught me how to approach challenging questions through research. It is a little embarrassing to admit at this point that I did not set out to work in the grape and wine industry. When I was finishing my graduate research, I was looking for a position where I could use my experiences in plant mineral nutrition to make a practical difference in production horticulture - and end my life as a starving graduate student. The advertised position at Cornell called for a researcher to investigate plant nutrition and root biology issues with Concord vineyards…it was a good match.
How have the research targets of your field changed since the beginning of your career?
When I started in 1998, the western New York Concord industry and the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program team identified a production target of averaging 8 tons/acre of ripe (16 oBrix) fruit. Current production was stuck at around 4-5 tons/acre. Initially, we addressed vineyard production through research on increasing vineyard water and nutrient availability to improve vine size and fruiting potential. As vine size and productivity improved, research activities changed to focus on reducing production costs through pruning strategies, mechanized production systems, and mechanical crop estimation and adjustment. To stay on the front edge of production and efficiency, our next great challenge in viticulture is to integrate those two areas of research and spatially manage vineyards in response to variable environmental conditions to optimize production and minimize costs.
What projects are going on in your lab right now?
CLEREL has several cooperative projects on juice grapes, wine grapes, hops, willow, and vegetables in areas ranging from cover crops to nutrition, pest management, and variety evaluations. The largest effort, however, is in precision viticulture. The “Efficient Vineyard” Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded project aims to bring precision viticulture tools to juice, wine, and table grape vineyards in the U.S. In the project, spatial soil, canopy, and crop data is collected with mobile sensors. The data layers are validated, processed, and integrated to generate potential spatial management maps for producers. Precision agriculture hardware and software is used to apply and test variable rate mechanized management to commercial vineyards.
How will your research benefit the grape industry?
The primary function of my viticulture position at Cornell is to support the Concord juice grape industry. Concord and Niagara represent about 85% of the grape production in New York (65% of the farm gate value) and the price paid for Concord is approximately $220/ton. Over the past forty years, the price of Concord has only fluctuated between $180-$280/ton. For this industry to survive and remain profitable, vineyards must increase the sustainable yield of quality fruit and reduce production costs. Our past research on vine nutrition and root biology has demonstrated the upper limits of Concord growth and production in the region. The research on vineyard mechanization and crop load balance has provided options to reduce production costs while maintaining yield and quality. The current Efficient Vineyard project maintains our focus on production efficiency by using spatial vineyard measurement and variable rate management to make the most of every vine.
What was the best piece of research advice you have received?
Dr. Nelson Shaulis, considered by many as the father of eastern viticulture, was a retired pomologist at Cornell when I was hired. I was very fortunate to be able to spend time with him in my first year at Cornell and he was quite worried about my transition from the world of Arabidopsis physiology research to applied viticulture. He said to me, “There is a lot of non-science based information out there to confuse growers. Don’t add to the confusion. Viticulture is horticulture and enology is food science, there is no magic.” Viticulture does seem to attract a fair amount of myth and mis-information on the romantic quest for the perfect bottle of wine – when grape production becomes more “art” than “science.” Fortunately, fundamental plant biology and the scientific method rarely fail in answering questions important to real production for real growers and their real businesses.
Editor's note: Terry Bates is Project Director for Efficient Vineyard. Read more about this project here and in this issue's "Efficient Vineyard Project Focus."