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Vineyard Visibility: Michael David Winery Improves Results With Aerial Imaging

Article by Ceres Imaging


Despite the bucolic setting of the average vineyard, risk can be everywhere. Sun-dappled views through the vines can make for inspiring and great pictures. But for professional winemakers, those romantic scenes can hide the potential for drought, disease and pests that can disrupt production and, ultimately, impact business results.


Many of these risks, like early stage crop stress caused by water or nutrient deficiencies, can be largely invisible to the naked eye. This is why the savviest vineyard owners and operators are turning to aerial multispectral imagery, combined with advanced data analysis, to understand more about how to better protect crops and confidently solve problems before yield or quality are negatively impacted.


For example, Michael David Winery; a sixth-generation, family-owned business in Lodi, California; follows “LODI RULES” for sustainable winegrowing, which are described as “rigorous, science-based, voluntary, and third-party accredited,” incorporating some 100 sustainability and stewardship practices.


LODI RULES include minimizing pesticide use and adhering to the group’s unique pesticide risk model, the “Pesticide Environmental Assessment System,” or PEAS. The PEAS model is used to quantify the impact of all pesticides applied in a vineyard, and it generates an Environmental Impact Unit (EIU) for each pesticide. The EIU is based on risk to farm workers, dietary risks to consumers, and risks to aquatic invertebrates and birds, as well as risk to bees’ and pests’ natural enemies. LODI RULES growers must fall below 50 PEAS impact units for the season.


Enter Aerial Multispectral Imagery


As part of their overall strategy, Michael David Winery leverages technology to maximize resources and to focus on critical areas of vineyard management. In particular, they use aerial imaging from fixed-wing airplanes to gain a holistic view of their operation, produce healthier crops, and achieve consistent LODI RULES compliance.


Michael Klouda, viticulturist and grower relations representative, says that use of aerial imagery, coupled with analysis and support from their vendor, helps them “cover more ground” and get ahead of issues that may not be visually apparent with the naked eye.


How It Works


Using fixed-wing planes overflying at 4,000 feet, scientific-grade thermal cameras capture high-resolution imagery. Processed overnight, the images and analytics, which include other spectral bands, as well as weather, irrigation data, and other inputs, show Klouda and his team indexes that illustrate water, nutrient and disease pressure in the vineyard, down to a resolution level of 400 millimeters, or just 15.75 square inches.


The processed images and data help Klouda and his team pinpoint areas on which to focus their limited time and resources. They can quickly act on next-generation reports like the Chlorophyll Index and provide a deep understanding of crop canopy quality and plant health throughout the season. Detailed NDVI images provide information about plant stand populations, weed density and plant vigor. And aerial imaging also provides data about long-term stressors on perennials and annuals, facilitating harvest planning for uniform maturity and preferred plant quality. The combination of imagery and data analysis ultimately gives Michael David Winery a holistic, whole-vineyard picture of plant health and nutrient availability, helping the team pinpoint any areas of insect, water or disease pressures or poor soil fertility.


Aerial imagery also enables Klouda to manage crop nutrients and minimize use of pesticides and fungicides to achieve a high-quality, low-impact crop. “Going beyond a certain level [with pesticides] means you don’t get certified,” he explains. “So, we do a lot of biological control, pheromone disruptors and sulfur instead.”


What’s more, aerial imaging enables Klouda to spot other pest and disease issues early, because each flyover delivers new data designed to identify other potential problems. For example, recent images warned of an infestation of esca, an untreatable fungus found in mature grape vines. Though the affected area was previously scouted, the fungus, which is invisible in its early stages, was not seen by the team. However, subtle anomalies in the aerial spectral imaging helped Klouda identify the impacted vines, which were removed before any infestation could spread.


Timely information about the state of vineyard health empowers Michael David to proactively adjust viticulture techniques as needed, thanks to a deeper understanding of issues across the vineyard. Aerial spectral even provides Klouda with an early warning system for pests. He received advance notice of a recent visit from mites, which was quickly managed in coordination with the winery’s PCA (Pest Control Advisor), while staying within the bounds of the LODI RULES.


According to Klouda, the aerial spectral imaging he uses, provided by California-based Ceres Imaging, can deliver real benefits to winegrowers. “If they have a large enough operation, I think it definitely provides value. If you’re not able to get out to every block, every day, aerial imaging gives you a ‘heads up’ about what’s going on in the vineyards. This is particularly true if you can’t clearly scout everything by getting into the middle of every block. Imaging can help you identify weaker areas, vigorous areas, potential mite damage, and potential viruses. So, I definitely think it’s a great thing to use if you have 200 to 300 or more acres of vines.”


Ultimately, advanced imaging and data enables growers to “see the unseen” and to more proactively and effectively manage their vineyards while reducing costs and mitigating business risk. For the family that owns Michael David Winery, detailed imagery helps drive improved business results – providing the opportunity to extend a 150-year tradition of agriculture and environmental stewardship well into the future.