Washington State University is developing an assessment to help state juice grape growers determine the sustainability of their operations. The "Washington State Juice Grape Sustainability Report Card” is the first step toward statewide efforts to define and support sustainable growing practices on more than 26,000 acres of Washington’s Concord and Niagara vineyards.

Funded through a $65,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Agriculture, the Sustainability Report Card received support from the National Grape Cooperative, FruitSmart, J.M. Smucker’s, Milne Fruit Products, Tree Top and Valley Processing.

"Sustainability, by definition, is long-term business survival. Farming, especially in perennial crops, is not a short-term process,” said Michelle Moyer, WSU statewide viticulture extension specialist. "Knowing where growers can improve, economically and environmentally, as well as in terms of employee health and safety, will ultimately make them better businessmen.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program defines sustainability for the agricultural community based on three main criteria, Moyer explained:

• Economic: The business is profitable over the long term;

• Environmental: The business is a steward of land, air and water; and

• Equitable (socially):The business enhances the quality of life for producers and their communities.

"A business is only truly sustainable if it adheres to the principles of all three,” Moyer said. "If a business cannot be profitable or uphold the values of the community with which it interacts, in addition to conserving its natural resources, it will not survive.”

Why rate sustainability of juice grape production now? Because retailers such as Walmart are putting increasing pressure on juice and food processors to document the sustainability of their production practices, Moyer said.

"Sustainability sells products and shows their customers that they care about the long-term impact of their business on the environment, economics and social equity, although most tend to focus on the environmental aspect,” she said.

Juice grape growers using the Sustainability Report Card can evaluate their operations around seven key areas:

• Vineyard management: How growers manage the vineyard floor and soil surface, weeds, canopy, crop estimation and yield adjustments, and records.

• Nutrient management: Soil and plant testing, nitrogen and other macronutrient management, micronutrient management and fertilizer usage strategies.

• Irrigation management: Type of irrigation system used, irrigation scheduling, water quality, water infiltration, system maintenance and soil moisture monitoring.

• Pest management: Whether an insect, disease and weed pest management plan is in place and how a grower manages powdery mildew, cutworms, leafhoppers and mealybugs.

• Pesticide storage, handling and safety: How pesticides are stored and secured, pesticide inventory documentation, disposal, proximity of pesticides to water sources, use of a spill kit and personal protective equipment, cleaning of sprayers, pesticide application records and employee notification of areas being treated.

• New vineyard establishment (optional): Previous land use, soil surveying, consideration of cold damage or frost, and vineyard row and vine spacing.

• Continuing education: whether growers access statewide agency information, university extension publications, and trade and industry publications, or attend meetings/workshops, to learn of emerging issues or fulfill pesticide credits. 

Juice-grape specific

WSU scientists and extension personnel created a draft of the Sustainability Report Card this year and sought feedback from Washington producers of juice grapes for National Grape, the grower cooperative for Welch’s. So far, 193 growers have completed the draft assessment, which represents more than 90 percent of the cooperative’s state members, said NGC’s Craig Bardwell. The goal is to receive assessments from all Washington members before harvest. Revisions will be made to the Sustainability Report Card this fall based on comments received from the growers.

Michigan and New York have vineyard sustainability programs in place, but they are not juice-grape specific like the one being developed in Washington, Moyer said. In addition, Washington juice grape growers have many sustainable production practices already in place, as an inherent feature of producing juice grapes in Washington’s geography and climate.

"Washington juice grape production is, for the most part, one of the more sustainable production systems in the country,” she added. "Concord production is very low input. Now we’re putting a number to it.”

For more information about the Sustainability Report Card, visit the WSU Viticulture and Enology website.