Northern Grapes Project Coming to an End

Growers and vintners in the Midwest and Northeast seek to keep program running

by Linda Jones McKee
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Researchers do shoot tipping and basal leaf removal for a trial of Frontenac training systems in Clayton, N.Y. Photo by Tim Martinson/Cornell University and NGP.)

Geneva, N.Y.—The Northern Grapes Project, a five-year coordinated agriculture program that involved 12 institutions, 34 researchers and 23 industry associations, will come to an end Aug. 31.

Under the leadership of Dr. Tim Martinson, senior extension associate at Cornell University the Northern Grapes Project (NGP), focused on the integration of viticulture, winemaking and marketing of the new cold-hardy cultivars in 12 Midwestern and Northeastern states.

Martinson and the current NGP team of Murli Dharmadhikari, Iowa State University; William Gartner, University of Minnesota; Jim Luby, University of Minnesota; Anna Katharine Mansfield, Cornell University; Chrislyn Particka, Cornell University; and Paolo Sabbatini, Michigan State University, are stepping down, but they have received numerous requests from the wine and grape industry to move the project forward.

Sabbatini, associate professor of horticulture at Michigan State University, told Wines & Vines that he is hopeful that a project to continue the work of the NGP can be created and funded. He and several other researchers are developing a program that will do that, but also add new objectives, members and states, and establish a new team to run it. “Our new objective is to understand that anything done in the vineyard applies to what happens in the winery,” he said. “Then we have to market those new varieties.”

Sabbatini plans to apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for 2017 Specialty Crops Research Initiative funds for at least three years. The original NGP received $2.5 million in funding from the USDA’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative Program and then a $3 million renewal for two years. In the interim, Mike White, field specialist in viticulture at Iowa State University, is running an initiative to raise $2,000 from each state association. These funds would allow researchers to move forward with the basics of the NGP, including the project’s newsletter and popular webinar series.

The Northern Grapes Project explained
Martinson presented an in-depth look at the NGP during the symposium held July 21 at the annual ASEV-Eastern Section meeting in St. Louis, Mo. His talk, “Delivering Extension Education to a Geographically Dispersed Industry: Tales from the Northern Grapes Project,” told the full story of the project, from its initial vision to the final outcomes.

Martinson noted that traditionally, researchers have defined a problem, proposed hypotheses and created an experimental design. Then the results were disseminated by extension agents to growers through newsletters, field meetings and winter conferences. At that point, those growers supposedly adopted new practices. The USDA Specialty Crops Initiative, however, is now supporting a different model for research and extension: the outcome-driven project model.

According to Martinson, under this model, growers generate the questions and ideas to be investigated, performance targets are set, and trials are conducted. Outcomes are measured not by the number of hours spent on research, the number of fact sheets published, or the number of people who attend a workshop. What is important is “how those tools–the how-to guides, educational websites, field trials, trained experts available to answer questions, and more–helped bring about change on the farm.”

Consequently, the NGP is multi-institutional and trans-disciplinary and integrated extension and research involving the areas of production, processing and marketing the new varieties of cold-hardy grapes being grown in new production areas by novice growers and winemakers. The vision, according to the original grant proposal for the NGP, was “to develop grape production, winemaking and marketing practices suited to the unique characteristics of V. riparia-based [Northern Grape] cultivars marketed through retail tasting rooms and their niche in the U.S. wine market.”

NGP research studies
Because the cold-hardy varieties are so new, there were (and are) many unanswered questions about the best ways to manage the vines, best winemaking practices and how to market the resulting wines. While the varieties crossed by Elmer Swenson were introduced in the 1970s and ‘80s, the oldest cultivar from the University of Minnesota breeding program is Frontenac, which was released in 1996. The newest — a white grape named Itasca — was just officially named this past April.

Coordinated variety trials were conducted to gather data from three to nine sites per variety and to evaluate yield and quality versus climate indices. Actual mid-winter cold tolerance and the average fruit composition that could be anticipated, including soluble solids in degrees Brix and levels of malic and tartaric acid, were investigated in these new varieties.

In vineyards across the northern Midwest and the Northeast, training systems, cropping levels and canopy management methods were assessed, as were disease management and vine nutrition. Studies were done in wineries and laboratories to reduce the acid levels and deal with partial malolactic fermentations, and other work was done to develop wine styles that both fit the cultivars and appealed to customers in the tasting rooms.

Outcome-based program results
In order to meet the outreach challenge of the NGP to deliver research-based information to a new, geographically dispersed industry across 12 states, the project team integrated the extension aspect of the project with the research activities. A newsletter, that grew to 3,200 subscribers, was distributed four times per year with articles on various research projects and profiles of members of the project team. An annual progress report was published with an overview of the program and links to different research projects. The NGP also organized an annual symposium and conducted 15 field workshops per year as well as numerous field, lab and classroom sessions. The NGP also regularly posted “News You Can Use” digests that offered brief, timely links to seasonal information.

Perhaps one of the most important communication tools developed by NGP was the webinar series that began in 2012. The format allowed presenters to post slides, a “chat pod” gave participants the opportunity to ask questions or make comments both during and after the webinar just by typing in on their computer. Webinar sessions were attended by 30 to 100 people and the e-mail list of registrants grew to 2,179 from 47 states and Canada. Viticulture topics ranged from trellis design and pruning to fungicide phytotoxicity; enology sessions included numerous subjects from winery sanitation to typicity in wines; and the marketing webinars discussed topics from food safety regulation to branding studies and collaborative marketing.

At the conclusion of the webinar series in 2016, Chrislyn Particka of Cornell University and Eric Stafne from Mississippi State University conducted participant surveys to determine the impact of the webinar series. They found that there were 3,083 participants in the live webinars; 2,397 estimated views of webinar recordings; and 2,179 members on the e-mail list. They calculated that the total value of the webinar series was $3,467,869, based on the average hourly salary of $29.25 and the time invested in participating, on the average distance of 147 miles that participants said they would drive; and several other factors including the estimated additional revenue a participant may have earned and how much money the participant may have saved as a result of the webinar.

“The most effective means of communicating findings was the Webinars, followed by Newsletters and ‘News You Can Use,’” Martinson said. “Symposia had the least participation, primarily due to geographical limitations for participants.”

He added archived webinars and articles have proved highly valued and he hopes they can be stored on a database that’s regularly accessible. “The connections and community support helped project members address local issues and problems such as the spraying of grape sensitive herbicides in the Midwest region.”

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