Part vineyard, part laboratory
New UMass vineyard will further research on sustainable grape production
Elsa Petit, viticulture specialist and lecturer at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, and Sonia Schloemann, UMass Extension fruit program, talked to Edible Pioneer Valley about the vineyard at Cold Spring Orchard in Belchertown and the research that's been happening there for the past several years, in partnership with local fruit growers. Petit has also been busy with her students planting a brand-new vineyard at the UMass Agricultural Learning Center which will provide a hands-on training ground for viticulture students.
“Cold hardy grape hybrids are not as known by the public as pure European grapes such as Pinot Noir,” says Petit. “Yet, it's important to learn more about these hybrids because they are made from some of our local native grapes and therefore are more resistant to our local climate and diseases,” she points out. “Part of our research is looking into their local microbiomes, because the domestication of local American grapes is very recent, so the microbiomes that are present on the wild grapes around might be also very well-suited for recently cultivated grapes.” Having local vineyards also means less shipping, making viticulture more sustainable.
Fall may not seem like a good time for planting, but cool temperatures and ample soil moisture can help plants settle in, says Petit, where UMass students in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture have been busy this fall planting dozens of cold-tolerant grapes at the campus’s first student-run vineyard.
They plan to establish a working vineyard where growing and tending both table and wine grapes will provide hands-on experience for Petit’s courses, “Sustainable Grape Production” and “Grape Biology,” which she believes are the only such classes to be taught at the university level in New England. Among the half-dozen organic varieties being planted are the familiar Concord table grape, plus both red and white wine grapes, Petit says.
A native of France who studied viticulture in that country’s Bordeaux region, Petit explains, “This project is different from the vineyard that UMass Amherst has at its Cold Spring Orchard, which is geared more toward research. For this new vineyard, students and their hands-on experience will be at the center of the project.”
She says the new vineyard located at the Agricultural Learning Center on the former Wysocki Farm in Amherst received an initial $3,000 grant from the campus’s Sustainability Innovation and Engagement Fund in spring 2017, which supported such preparatory steps as soil analysis, installing an irrigation system and driving posts in for a training system for the rows of vines on about three-quarters of an acre this fall.
The grape plants, hybrids of European and native wild grapes, were donated to the Stockbridge School by Double A Vineyards of Fredonia, New York, Northeastern Vine Supply of West Pawlet, Vermont, and Silver Creek Vineyards of New Douglas, Illinois. They are expected to eventually grow to the size of a small lilac tree. Petit has also received a Sustainable Curriculum Initiative award from UMass Libraries to enhance the sustainability aspect of her viticulture courses, and she hopes that grape sales can help to sustain the program in the future.
Planting grapes represents “a very long-term commitment,” Petit says, but when properly handled vines can produce fruit for 20 years or more. To prevent the plants from putting too much energy into fruit during their first three years, students will pinch off the flowers each spring, a period that she hopes will also lead to organic certification.
Skyler Hall, a Fall River native who attended Bristol County Agricultural High School in Dighton, is now a junior majoring in plant and insect sciences who says he is thrilled to have taken Petit’s class and to have worked at the new vineyard over the summer.
“I learned about grapes from all over the world,” he notes. “The class was so much fun, I loved that it was very hands-on. Being outside and working with plants is therapeutic, you really focus on the plants. Learning how to prune grapes can be complicated, you can’t learn it with just words.”
He adds, “I’m really happy that I can look back and say I helped to establish the vineyard at UMass. I’ve definitely been looking into where grapes could take me in the future, and thinking more about a graduate degree in botany.”
Petit, who holds a Ph.D. in plant pathology from the University of California, Davis, focuses her research on how viticultural practices influence microorganisms, and more specifically, the evolution of disease-causing microorganisms. She has taught courses in viticulture, plant pathology and disease ecology, and through teaching she is helping her students make the transition from vocational agricultural high schools in Massachusetts to the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.