“It’s the single highest threat to sustainable wine grape production facing our industry,” says Todd Newhouse, owner of Upland Vineyards near Outlook, and one of the oldest vineyards in Washington.
The threat Newhouse refers to is the lack of available clean plants for vineyard plantings. Viruses can reduce the life of a vineyard investment by up to 50 percent. Like Newhouse, most growers know that selection of plant material is a pivotal decision in vineyard development because it is one of the most economically sensitive investment decisions made for the long-term. But getting clean plant material is a challenge as nurseries have not been able to supply certified virus-free grapevines to meet the needs of recent vineyard expansion largely because they themselves can’t get access to virus-free vines.
In 2001, the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers put together a comprehensive plan that would help ensure that planting material entering the state or being sold within the state would be virus-free. Vicky Scharlau, Executive Director of the Association said, “Growers knew having a plan would be the only path to virus-free vineyards and vineyard longevity. We needed to create a pathway to ensure that vines used to plant new vineyards were certified ‘clean’. The industry even funded the startup of a grapevine foundation block in Prosser at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center. They were willing to put their money where their mouth was.”
Fast forward to 2008, and Congress passed H.R. 6124 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (the Farm Bill) with one section establishing the National Clean Plant Network (NCPN). The purpose of this section was to produce clean ‘starter plants’ through a national partnership focused on diagnosis and elimination of diseases in specialty crops. The section included $5 million a year through the US Department of Ag’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The $5 million supports 23 programs at 19 Clean Plant Centers in 15 states covering fruit trees, grapes, citrus, berries, and hops.
“Without the Clean Plant Centers we would not be able to provide a clean grape vine to our customers,” said Cathy Caldwell, from the Oregon offices of Bailey Nurseries. Bailey Nurseries is one of the largest nurseries in the US with locations in Washington, Oregon and Minnesota and more than $60 million in revenues. With materials provided by the Clean Plant Centers, they are rebuilding their grape portfolio and improving their ability to provide clean wine and table grapes to a larger market. Their new certified block will be six acres with all plants being provided through the Clean Plant Center’s virus-tested programs.
Scharlau, who sits on the NCPN Tier 2 Grape Board, said, “NCPN has been successful because it’s driven by stakeholders…the growers, the processors, the nurseries. Plus we have state departments of agriculture, land-grant universities and professional associations at the table. It is truly a collaborative public/private partnership and one that has been long, long overdue.”
By providing clean starter plants, the NCPN is cited with contributing to the economy by working with specialty crop producers to generate the needed clean plants, increasing yields of healthy, high quality crops, and encouraging competitive standards for domestic and international trade.
Unfortunately for Newhouse, and for all growers, the threat continues. Without passing a Farm Bill that includes funding for the NCPN, work to provide clean plants will end. While the long-term goal is to make all Clean Plant Centers self-sustaining, pulling funding now would render work-to-date pointless.