What is in this article?:
- Kenneson Farms continues 100-year vineyard tradition
- Replacing labor with capital
- Soil-building practices
- Availability of water isn’t the only doubtful factor in Steve Dee’s plans this year. He’ll also need to find 100 or so workers to pick, dry and box grapes during the month-long harvest.
Steve Dee in one of his Thompson Seedless raisin vineyards west of Kerman, Calif.
Dee has adopted several practices to limit his commercial fertilizer costs while improving the health and structure of his soil.
He applies fertilizer based on results of soil and petiole testing and also tries to make the most of home-grown inputs. “I’m a firm believer in the value of adding organic matter back into the fields,” he says.
He does that by incorporating annual cover crops of vetch, barley, wheat or oats and vine prunings in alternating rows in his vineyards. Each year, the rows change between a cover crop and a brush row. “That way we work the brush into the soil one year and the cover crop the next,” Dee says.
The cover crops protect the soil from erosion. The, vetch, a legume, also helps build soil nitrogen levels. Dee mows this vegetation down in May.
“We hold off seeding the cover crop until December so that we can carry it into the next season to harbor beneficial insects, like lady bugs and lace wings,” he says. “This helps reduce the amount and cost of insecticide applications.”
At one time, he stockpiled and burned the vine prunings and old stumps hauled out of his vineyards. Now he chips and scatters the brush over the row middles in between the alternating cover crop strips. Then, he disks it in to add still more organic matter to his soils. Made in his shop, his chipper mounts on the 3-point hitch of a tractor. Crews toss the wood into the hopper as they follow the machine down the row. It can handle wood up to about 4 inches in diameter. Bigger pieces are run through a larger commercial chipper.
Dee also adds organic matter by spreading cow manure from a local dairy each year in every other row of his vineyard each year.
His use of commercial fertilizers includes an application of UN-32 in June and other times, as needed. He adds phosphorus, potassium and zinc with various foliar sprays throughout the year.
To keep up with the demands of his operation, Dee has a staff of ten full-time employees. Two handle all spraying work in the vineyards and orchards. Another is responsible for all tractor work around the farm. The remaining employees split the rest of the workload. “All employees are cross-trained in all the various types of work, from shoveling weeds and pruning vines to driving the tractor,” he explains. “This helps keep labor costs down by enabling each employee to be as productive as possible.”
Dee keeps a lid on equipment costs by relying on a well-trained shop crew to keep his machinery in good repair. “Also,” he says, “I don’t buy new, if I can get a good deal on used equipment.”