The Block Lab: Increasing Vineyard Water Use Efficiency through Cost-Effective Single-Vine-Resolution Irrigation

David Block

Wherever our department seeks input around the state, two problems always surface as critical, water and labor. In order to increase the efficiency of water use in the vineyard and reduce labor, the Block Lab is working with several collaborators at UC Davis (Lambert, McElrone, Kurtural, and Knoesen), as well as at University of Michigan (Mark Burns) and Cypress Semiconductor. 

Current drip irrigation and fertigation practices generally treat all plants in a block or management zone identically, even though it is clear that all plants do not require the same amount of water or fertilizer. Therefore, an important means of increasing water use and fertilizer use efficiency is to sense the water and mineral nutrient status of individual plants and deliver a specific amount of water or fertilizer to each plant according to its needs. Technology to achieve this goal has yet to be developed, especially one that is low cost (< $5 per plant) and compatible with existing production (i.e. can be installed in existing vineyard/orchard) systems. The large-scale data modeling and visualization necessary to make this technology accessible to the practitioners also do not exist. Filling these gaps, which is the goal of this work, is critical to progress in precision irrigation and nutrient management. The long-term goal is to develop a comprehensive water/nutrient sensing and delivery system that can be used in high value specialty crops such as grapes and almonds. The challenge to address is this: How do you know the water/nutrient status for each of a very large number of vines (generally on the order of a thousand vines per acre) or trees, and correctly determine the right time and amount of water/nutrients to deliver to each plant? 

The team is working toward developing the cutting edge sensors, fluidics, and data modeling/visualization technology essential to have a comprehensive system that will find wide adoption in practice. The first sensors developed have been deployed in the vineyard on campus, and the first proof-of-concept water delivery system (supplying 640 vines individually) has been deployed at our Oakville vineyard.