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Faculty Focus

Five Questions for Jackie Dresser

Jackie Dresser joined the Lake Erie Regional Grape Extension Program as viticulture extension support specialist in January 2018, but has served as research technician with the Efficient Vineyard project since July 2016, first with the Spatial Data Technology Group based at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom and most recently with Terry Bates, project leader at Cornell’s Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory (CLEREL) in Portland, NY. She joins the program with a background in spatial data analytics, GIS mapping and the coordination of viticultural trials involving proximal sensing and variable rate management. Jackie was born and raised in the Finger Lakes region and apprenticed with a Land Surveying firm in Ithaca, NY from 2006 to 2012, where  she was licensed as Professional Land Surveyor after earning a B. S. degree in Land Surveying from Alfred State College.

What inspired you to work with grapes?

Growing up in the Finger Lakes, I was surrounded by vineyards but unaware of what their significance would be in my life. While apprenticing in Land Surveying, I did a boundary survey of some especially beautiful and well-maintained vineyards on the east side of Seneca Lake. Having only a vague familiarity with grapes and wine, I started working part-time in a tasting room. Here, it was the people I met that inspired me. The travelers who made the Finger Lakes a destination, the staff that welcomed them into the tasting room, the winemakers who transformed perishable fruit into something beautiful and made to improve with time, the growers who braved all kinds of weather, equipment breakdowns, invasive pests and diseases, all to steward land that they loved. It is the people in this industry that inspire me to keep learning every day. I want them to be able to teach their trade to their children, or the next generation, so that we can continue to nurture the vineyards that nurture us.

As you begin your new job, what are the major challenges you see for growers?

The biggest challenge for any cool climate grape farmer is to sustain their vineyards through unpredictable environmental extremes. Extreme low temperatures and cold snaps can cause winter injury to buds and vascular tissues; short growing seasons can inhibit sugar accumulation in berries, degrade fruit quality and inhibit wood maturation, droughts can starve vines of the nutrients and water they need to grow and prepare for winter; excessive moisture can increase disease pressure. Despite these challenges, grape growers in NY, many of whom are third or fourth generation, are producing premium fruit year after year. As markets become more competitive and the costs associated with grape production continue to increase, efficiency is crucial to sustaining viticulture in New York State.

You are based at the Cornell Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory (CLEREL) and worked as a research technician before starting your current job. What projects have you been  involved with at the CLEREL?

I have been most involved with the Efficient Vineyard project, funded by a USDA SCRI grant. It is focused on using precision viticulture technologies to facilitate variable rate crop load management in vineyards. Spatial data about the canopy, soil, and crop are integrated and used to inform management decisions. These decisions can be coded into prescription maps that allow mechanized vineyard equipment (shoot thinners, harvesters used for fruit thinning, sprayers, spreaders etc.) to change their rates of rotation or application autonomously in the vineyard. This way, the operator can just drive and the prescription map will take care of the rest. Viticulturally, this provides a basis to manage the heterogeneity in vineyards and ensure that production and quality goals are met and perennial vineyard health in maintained. Economically, this allows for inputs to be put where they are needed and restricted where they are not. Though this technology has been successful in our trials in the Lake Erie region, the results of commercial applications will reflect the integrity of the spatial data collection, processing, mapping and the sensibility of the decisions made from them. We are also running other trials related to cover cropping, grape rootworm remediation, developing and expanding a network of weather stations to integrate into NEWA, evaluation of vine renewal practices, and more.

How will your research and extension efforts benefit the grape industry?

Profitability and sustainability in the grape industry involves managing a daunting amount of factors related to vine growth and fruit development. Though I wouldn’t call any research I am a part of “mine” per se (it takes a village!), the principal objective of any research and extension coming from LERGP is to help growers here be successful. I’d like to think that we are not working outside of the industry, but a part of it and connected to all of the people within it. We listen to the needs of the industry, develop research questions that relate to those needs, design experiments to answer them and relay our findings to the growers who are working way too hard to have the time to dive into this sort of research on a daily basis. We help each other, and we build on the knowledge that growers and researchers have gained over the generations.  

If your office were on fire and you could only escape with one item, what would it be?

That is a tough one. I have office plants that I truly love, but I know that I could get cuttings and grow new ones… so I suppose I would take the binder with hard copies of all of Nelson Shaulis’ publications (assuming that Dr. Bates would grab the digital data archive).