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Faculty Focus

Five Questions for Jennifer Russo

Jennifer RussoJennifer Russo is the newly-appointed viticulture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Lake Erie Regional Grape Program, but first joined Cornell in May 2018 when she began work as a research technician with the Efficient Vineyard Project (USDA-NIFA-SCRI).  In this role, she was responsible for developing and evaluating an automated grape counting machine to aid in industry-level crop estimation and forecasting.   Jennifer received her Master’s degree in Biology/Environmental Science and was an adjunct professor in Biology/Environmental Science at the State University of New York in Fredonia and Director of Research and Development with TimberFish Technologies before joining Cornell.  

What inspired you to work with grapes?

I grew up surrounded by Concord grapes and the economics associated with the juice industry.  When I was presented with the opportunity to join the Efficient Vineyard Project, I saw it as an opportunity to help our growers increase efficiency of inputs and optimize productivity, profits and environmental sustainability.  It is a perfect fit.

What are the major challenges in grape production in New York?

With increasing pressure on resources, it is imperative that the U.S. viticulture industry improves its resource-use efficiency to remain sustainable and competitive.  We have a short growing season, freezing temperatures and extreme weather events that all contribute to an already pressing agricultural system. Currently, vineyard management decisions are often applied uniformly across entire production blocks without measurement or response to spatial variation in soil or vine characteristics.  I want to be a part of the solution by bringing sound research to our stakeholders in an effort to make management decisions better tailored to each vineyard block or vine.

What is your vision for your position within Cornell extension?

My proposed extension activities are aligned in my goal to provide research-based educational programs and information to growers, processors and agri-business professionals.  I envision arming our stakeholders with knowledge to profitably produce and market safe and healthful grape juice, wines, jams, jellies and table grapes, thereby contributing to the viability of farms and the economic well-being of New York State. In particular, I hope to address producer-identified needs and opportunities with emphasis on soil and site selection, growth control, nutrition and water management, and harvest management.

What research or projects are going on in your program this summer?

Research activities fall under three funded research grants, as well as developing new research trials for 2020. The first project, led by Tim Martinson, will address bud hardiness and winter injury assessment of different pruning level techniques and bud hardiness correlations.  The second project is the Vineyard Improvement Project funded by New York State Department of Ag and Markets. The third project is a continuation of a New York Wine and Grape Foundation-funded project aimed at reducing prediction error of regional and field-level yield forecasts in Concords through the integration of precision viticulture technologies.

Additionally, I am continuing work with National Grape Cooperative to incorporate automated cluster weighing to the Cornell grape counting machine we previously developed. This machine provides for easy, rapid, and accurate automated berry counts and weights to assist with crop estimation procedures. It can achieve >99.5% accuracy and counts will take two to five minutes per sample of 3-5,000 grapes, compared to traditional hand-counting which averaged an hour per sample. This will make crop estimation faster and more accurate than current methods used by National Grape Cooperative.

Has anything about the grape and wine industry in New York surprised you?

If you look at viticulture worldwide, there are few places where it is more difficult to grow grapes profitably than in New York State.  We live in a cool, humid climate with damaging low temperatures in the winter, high disease pressure, and our growers are affected by international economics and market pressures. I am surprised by how innovative and forward-thinking Concord growers are in their viticulture knowledge.  They have been the backbone of the grape industry in NY for a long time and continue to remain profitable in the face of environmental and economic pressure, and it is all because of their viticulture knowledge and a dash of pure grit.

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

Our team—collectively we are one and an amazing one at that.  There is a wealth of knowledge and talent on our team and it is something that I could never leave behind to burn.