Putting the ARS in Grape Research

One of the most impactful ways the National Grape Research Alliance serves the research needs of the grape and wine industry is through our close working relationship with the USDA—in particular, its Agricultural Research Service. ARS is the Department’s in-house (or intramural) research arm.* The agency employs 2,000 scientists and has research units across the nation. Of its $1.7 billion fiscal year budget, ARS commits some $25 million to grape research, often with input from NGRA.

ARS looks to NGRA to provide a unified voice for the grape and wine industry in administering its scientific resources in support of our collective research needs. Since our founding in 2005, NGRA has held a Grape Industry Workshop with ARS every two to five years, in alignment with the five-year cycle for the agency’s research programs. Due largely to the Covid-19 pandemic, the last ARS workshop was in 2017. But this year, we triumphantly revived it—bigger and better than ever.

On November 7-8, 2023, at the USDA’s National Agricultural Library in Beltsville, MD, 30 members of NGRA, representing all grape sectors and regions of the US, gathered with 50 ARS scientists (23 of them speaking, many among ARS’ most decorated) and administrators, including ARS Administrator Simon Liu and Under Secretary for Research, Education and Economics Chavonda Jacobs-Young, who also serves as USDA’s Chief Scientist and is a longtime NGRA ally. The star power also extended to representatives from other federal research funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation and Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.

On Day One of the two-day agenda, NGRA Research Chair Nick Dokoozlian presented NGRA’s research themes and priorities, which were revised and ratified earlier this year. Then ARS scientists gave presentations on their research programs, arranged in sessions based on NGRA’s research theme areas—genetics and grapevine improvement, integrated production systems, natural resources and environment—and with several featured under the heading, “emerging industry issues.” While most directly centered on viticulture, some of the presentations provided insights from adjacent areas of research, including corn genetics, tomato breeding, climate and soil science, AI and pheromone-based chicken egg sexing (fascinating!).

Day Two brought breakout groups for brainstorming on research projects that NGRA and ARS could jointly launch. The exercise hinged off of a set of project concepts developed by NGRA’s Research Theme Committees in the run up to the meeting. Nine small groups (three per research theme) were each assigned a project concept and worked to draft potential objectives. From those, the three most compelling concepts were selected to receive NGRA Research Fund planning grants. This funding will enable project champions (chosen in the breakouts) to gather prospective team members to refine and advance the concepts. The winning projects, shown with their working titles, were:

  • Genetics & Grapevine Improvement: “Re-Envisioning the Genetics and Engineering for Incremental and Radical Improvements in Efficient Grape Production”
  • Integrated Production Systems: “Early Biological Detection of Leafroll Virus and Its Vector through Automated Sensors to Develop the Vineyard of the Future”
  • Natural Resources & Environment: “Systems Interactions in the Changing Climate: Understanding the Impact on the US Grape Industry Relative to Economic Investments”

We’ll be working with ARS to build out these concepts over the coming months. In addition to helping to target them to relevant grant programs, we’ll work together to mold them into fully realized research projects with laser-focused objectives and deliverables, teams of subject matter experts from other research institutions across the country, and robust extension agendas to ensure the results serve industry stakeholders.

We’re proud of our close association with USDA-ARS and thankful for the opportunity to reconvene our joint ARS Grape Industry Workshop. The relationship-building and project ideation achieved there were invaluable. It was an exciting two days, but we—and grape and wine industry at large—will be reaping the rewards for years to come.

Donnell Brown

P.S. If you have a passion for research, and initiating projects to advance the industry is something you’d be interested in, we invite you to consider joining NGRA!

*By comparison, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is USDA’s extramural arm—that is, its grant programs provide competitive funding to external institutions for research in designated areas. Authorized under the Farm Bill at $80 million annually, NIFA’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) is one of the most critical sources of grant funding for grape research. NGRA works closely with NIFA, too, ensuring its program administrators are aware of our industry priorities.