100 Years

In one of the articles cited in this month’s NGRA Update, the one with the clever title, “Changing Old Viticulture for All the Right Rieslings,” this paragraph caught my eye:

In 2011, scientists and industry experts [in France] launched LACCAVE, a project aimed at examining the future of French winemaking. Sticking to business as usual, they found, was a strategy that “has no future,” says Jean-Marc Touzard, director of research at the Montpellier center of the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE), who coordinated the project. The team also steered away from plans that relied solely on technology to save the day, he adds, because “it leads to artificialization of the wine industry” and “disconnection from the terroir.” Solutions will need to incorporate both science and centuries of wine-growing knowledge.

It resonated thematically with two events that bookended this month for me, one celebrating a long history of grape research and the other looking to its future. Both pointed to the need for collective action, the importance of considering the bigger picture when considering solutions, and the fact that, when it comes to enacting change, time is a dwindling resource.

At the start of September, the centennial celebration of the USDA-ARS Grape Breeding Program at the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center (SJVASC) in Parlier, CA (see Research Focus below), featured speakers from industry, academia and government, all of whom included a message of collaboration in their remarks. It became clear as they spoke that the agency’s 100 years of grape breeding was made possible in no small part by a network of people pulling together.

For example, Vice President of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Glenda Humiston said, “The partnership with UCANR goes back to the earliest days of the program. In the mid-1960s, our Kearney Research & Extension Center [literally across the street from the Center] dedicated 20 acres of land to grow and set trials of new grapes at no cost to the USDA. This partnership has led to many ongoing cooperative trials of new raisin selections, evaluation of new grapevine cultivars, trellis systems and development of mechanization, just to name a few.” Nearby Cal State University (a.k.a. Fresno State) also dedicated vineyard space to trial new varieties as they were developed. The contributions from the two universities, as well as from industry stakeholders and other ARS scientists across the country, helped to spur innovation and grow the table grape and raisin industries to be the global leaders they are today.

Later in the month, at a workshop organized by the California Climate Hub, a small cohort of researchers and industry representatives discussed the future of the industry in the context of climate change. As it was 100 years ago (though perhaps for different reasons), grape breeding is seen as a powerful tool to contend with industry challenges. Today, scientists and industry members alike see grapevine improvement as one solution to the “climate chaos” growers now contend with—that is, to develop varieties that are drought-tolerant, heat- and cold-hardy, disease-resistant, have a shorter growing season or better-adapted root system, and more. But we no longer have a century to adapt. Will the changes brought on by global warming outpace our ability to develop new varieties? Will the pain points even be the same once new selections are market-ready?

Technology, too, is seen as a hedge against an uncertain future, where climate impacts and labor shortages call for more controlled, greatly reduced inputs to manage vineyards. But even technology has its limits, namely that it may be too expensive for most growers to adopt or that grapevine growth habits and/or existing vineyard design may not be amenable to its use. There’s also the fear, as reflected in the quote above, that growers will lose the human connection to the earth and centuries-old tradition of growing grapes and making wine, that the nurturing “shadow of the farmer” will be lost from viticulture.

But as the conversations and media clips of this month have shown, we are bound together in this race to remain resilient against the realities of a warming world. And time is of the essence! Whether stemming from traditional breeding or modern genetics, or from robotics, AI, mechanization and automation, the next 100 years will call for both scientific innovation and grower wisdom. In the parlance of tech developers, there must be a human (or humans) in the loop for solutions to succeed. With industry collaborators from all sectors, university partners from across the country, and federal scientists, funders and advocates working together, as is our NGRA research model, we will boldly step into the next 100 years with open eyes, collaborative intent and hope for the future.

Donnell Brown