Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Interview with Dr. Tony Wolf, Virginia Tech Viticulturist, on $3.8 million USDA wine quality improvement grant

Virginia Tech (www.vt.edu) was recently awarded a $3.8 million, 5-year grant by the US Department of Agriculture's (USDAs) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to lead a multi-state project designed to improve grape and wine quality in the eastern United States (US).  Within Virginia Tech the project will be led by Dr. Tony Wolf, Professor of Viticulture in the University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Director of the school's Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center.  I interviewed Dr. Wolf recently in order to gain a better understanding of the project's origins, objectives, deliverables, and measures of success.  This blog post summarizes that conversation.

Dr. Wolf has been with Virginia Tech for over 25 years, having been hired initially in the late 1970s as a Viticulture Extension Specialist when the University saw an opportunity to become involved in wine-grape education and research.  Dr. Wolf has continued with his statewide viticulture responsibility but added a significant administrative responsibility with his appointment as Director of the Alson H. Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in 2003.

The grant to improve grape and wine quality in the eastern US was awarded by NIFA at the conclusion of a rigorous peer-review process.  NIFA is the successor organization to Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Services (CSREES).  CSREES had relationships with state Departments of Agriculture and funneled research funds to those organizations based on the number of farms in the state.  The state organizations would subsequently allocate funds to in-state research entities.  This process is still followed to some extent through block grants to state agricultural organizations but, for the most part, USDA research funds are funneled directly to research organizations through peer-reviewed grants.  NIFA, according to Dr. Wolf, provides a transparent process for allocation of USDA funds.  A key NIFA funding vehicle is the Speciality Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) which was "established to solve critical industry issues through research and extension activities" and gives priority to "projects that are multistate, multi-institutional, or trans-disciplinary; and include explicit mechanisms to communicate results to producers and the public."  SCRI has a current-year funding budget of $47 million.

University's had "seen the writing on the wall," both in terms of the shift in the research-funding-allocation mechanism as well as the SCRI mission, and a number of land-grant Universities banded together to pursue a multi-state, multi-disciplinary project.  The first concrete step in this initiative was a planning proposal submitted to the USDA by Cornell University.  This planning proposal was funded by the USDA with Cornell University as the Principal Investigator (PI).

Grape growers on the eastern seaboard face a number of fundamental issues, to include unpredictable precipitation during the growing season and inconsistent quality definitions.  The project seeks to improve the quality of grape and wine production in the eastern US by attacking these problems as part of a standard research and extension project.  The planning process for development of the grant proposal was a dynamic one which began in mid-2009 and continued through November.  The final proposal included seven institutions -- North Carolina State University, University of Maryland, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University, Virginia Tech, and the Connecticut Agricultural Expansion Station -- and 22 PIs.

The project, as awarded, has four objectives: (i) promotion of grape quality; (ii) matching varietals to sites; (iii) development of a GIS-based approach to vine location; and (iv) dissemination of study findings to users.  Teams have been formed around each objective.

A specific example of one of the study areas is the exploration of cover crops in the vineyard.  Precipitation during the growing season in the eastern US aggravates canopy management as it results in too much canopy which, in turn, can lead to poor fruit quality and rot.   Cover crops can increase soil health but can also cause drought stress in dry years.  Cover crop research is ongoing in North Carolina, Virginia, and the Finger Lakes region of NY to test the use and optimality of cover crops in northeast US vineyards and its potential contribution to an increase in the quality of grapes produced.

A federally and state-funded project named NE-1020 is currently underway in the US.  This multi-state project seeks to understand the performance of wine grapes under different climatic conditions.  The GIS component of the Virginia Tech study will bring the NE-1020 project under its umbrella and incorporate its data and findings into the portion which is tasked with using GIS technology to match varietals with vineyard sites.

Dr. Wolf sees the primary project deliverables as being comprised of decisionmaking tools.   The first tool envisioned is a GIS system that would assist a prospective wine maker in determining whether or not a particular plot would be appropriate for planting grape vines and growing quality grapes.  This tool will be the extrapolation of a platform that is currently in place at Virginia Tech's Center for Geospatial Information Technology.  The second tool will be used to aid the grower in varietal selection based on elements such as soil drainage, etc.  This tool will be developed as a result of incorporating the NE-1020 project into the VA-Tech project.  The third deliverable will be an assessment/evaluation tool.  A 1000-person survey will be conducted by the Virginia Tech Center for Survey Research in order to baseline the current practices and state of knowledge of regional grape growers.  That survey will be repeated in four years in order to assess the impact of the project on the practices and knowledge of the growers.

In addition to the decisionmaking tools, Dr. Wolf foresees some deliverables that are more in the educational realm.  For example, there will be a research summit at the end of Year 2 to report on progress-to-date as well as preliminary findings.  In addition, there will be state-wide workshops with team members and end users for information dissemination and feedback-capture.  Finally, all research findings will be provided on the web and be accessible to end users.  The USDA has an electronic vehicle called E-extension which presents research information to users based on communities of practice by region.  The Virginia Tech research results will be available to users on that vehicle.

This project will be successful, according to Dr. Wolf, if (i) there is improvement in the perception of eastern US wines in the market; (ii) if they can see trends that growers are siting vineyards scientifically; and (iii) if there is an improvement in the sales and profitability of eastern US wines.  Historically there has been a stigma associated with the quality of eastern US fruit, varieties, and winemakers.  Improving the grape and wine quality in the region will go a long way towards dispelling that stigma.

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