A recent piece about climate change and its impact on viticulture on National Public Radio got me thinking about how we use spatial technology in agriculture and what has changed in the field (no pun intended) over the years. What efficiencies have we gained in management practices, and how might we be able to use spatial technologies to help viticulturists, agronomists, and farmers adjust their practices along with our changing environment? Maybe it’s not so much about adjusting practices, but more about our ability to predict and change along with the climate.
Viticulture is the science of growing grapes and grapevines, specifically the type of grapes that we use to produce wine. The field has been around for at least 8,000 years, since humans decided to put down roots, settle in communities, and start farming. A viticulturist studies vine selection, irrigation styles, planting techniques, pest and disease management, optimal harvesting, and more.
Modern viticulturists use computer-based technology, including GIS and remote sensing, extensively to support their work. As technology has changed, so has the application of spatial technology in viticulture and in the larger field of agronomy. Applied remote sensing techniques and GIS are used to determine site suitability, resource usage, and how changes in climate, big and small, will affect the grapes they grow.
As the wine industry has developed and vineyards have grown larger and greater in number around the world, increasingly complex ground-based sensors are employed to monitor a variety of variables that impact the success of a crop. These sensors are used to check soil conditions (nutrient levels, moisture content, etc.), weather conditions, and fruit maturity. For example, winemakers and viticulturists rely on several kinds of hand-held tools to monitor crop health and fruit ripening, including handheld reflectance spectrometers. Instead of sending samples to a laboratory, near-infrared spectroscopy is done on the grapes in the vineyard to determine sugar levels and pH.
In 2006, DirectionsMag shared an article about Geovine, a small geospatial technology firm that developed an integrated system that used ground sensors and existing data produced by a variety of different sources to create site evaluation reports to support viticulturists in managing their vineyards. GeoVine is now maintained by Virginia Tech University’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology. Originally designed for the Virginia Vineyards Portal project, the tool is currently funded by the Ohio Grape Industries Committee and allows viticulturists in the state of Ohio to develop site evaluation reports and assist in collecting data about the vineyards they manage.
Movin’ on Up: Remote Sensing
As the cost of remotely-sensed data decreased, hand-held spectrometers gave way to aerial and satellite imagery for larger projects, like a study of Greek grape farms in 2016. This pilot study by the Remote Sensing Laboratory at the National Technical University of Athens, Greece, showed that multispectral VHR satellite imagery could be an excellent complement to, and possibly a replacement for, ground-based sensors and traditional methods of management. While it might not be financially accessible for the average farmer, researchers and local and regional organizations could take advantage of these tools to assess grape health.
Both satellite and aerial imagery can be used to determine crop health, soil health, salinity, and many of the same variables that are done by hand on the ground. Global Positioning Systems and GIS have been a part of “precision agriculture” for over 20 years and allow vineyards of all sizes to make targeted decisions about how and where to apply resources. As spatial technology advances and becomes more affordable, even the smallest farm can take advantage of the benefits of digital imagery and geospatial technologies for vineyard management. More targeted application of resources, including water and fertilizer, will help farmers of all types continue to be successful as resources become more scarce.
Drones are another remote data collection tool that is becoming increasingly popular in agriculture. Drones allow a small farm or vineyard to collect imagery that used to only be available by paying large amounts of money to obtain satellite or aerial imagery. High-quality drone imagery can be used in the same way that satellite imagery is used to collect information like:
- Plant height, count, and biomass estimates.
- Presence of disease and weeds.
- Field nutrients.
- Elevation and volumetric data.
Together We Stand
Regional databases and Cloud-based GIS applications are part of the future success of viticulture as the climate continues to change and we see significant shifts in temperature and other climate-related patterns. As any geographer knows, patterns don’t end at a border, and the variables affecting a vineyard don’t stop at the fence. Crowdsourcing, or “farmsourcing,” offers a commonly used methodology for collecting spatial data that can be shared among regional partners. This type of public-participation GIS allows viticulturists to collect information about their own vineyard and their own vines and compare it with what is happening in the community. Understanding what is happening beyond the boundaries of a single vineyard is critical to the success of the industry. Communicating that information via maps and interactive projects could make the difference between success and failure. GIS, along with related technologies, data, and continued interest in the product and the process can help save the vineyards for growers and consumers.
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