Our constant curiosity for new and exciting technology means that, every so often, a package will arrive at Robert Clay Vineyards that is torn open with the same unbridled anticipation as a present on Christmas morning. The item in said package will then be put through spontaneous, yet rigorous, testing to ensure that it functions as promised. If it passes, then the newest soldier in our agricultural infantry will assume his post somewhere within the miles of vines to diligently collect information and transmit it wirelessly back to our smartphones.
Alerts and alarms then warn us when the ambient temperature drops too low, or the wind speed is too high, or if soil moisture levels have fluctuated out of desirable range. This data allows us to spring into action, should it be warranted.
Temperature differences of ten degrees or more sometimes exist between the upper and lower vineyard blocks due to the topography of the land. Reporting stations in each of these locations provide real-time data on current conditions via live links to the Weather Underground website. (Curious about the weather at Robert Clay Vineyards? Check on the upper blocks here and the lower blocks here.)
Having access to this wealth of information is not only useful to us, but also to educational institutions that collect and disseminate information for the greater good with the help of these wireless sensors. Last season we took part in a study sponsored by Purdue University to detect the presence of grape berry moths, a particularly destructive insect that lays its eggs inside of the immature fruit on the vine.
Per typical style, two very large packages arrived and we set up the neon orange Z-traps by means of group craft-time where everyone assembled one critter trap on their own, according to the enclosed directions. The units were then positioned around the property so that each had a direct line of sight to another trap and/or the main recording station. Then we diligently set off to capture a random moth or two to introduce to the trap in order to check that the instrumentation was zapping and mapping properly.
Catching moths alive turns out to be way more difficult than one would think.
Experimentation is an essential part of learning how to farm, no matter how much fancy technology one has available. There’s a constant need for ingenuity, daily problem-solving, and creative trial-and-error to keep ahead of the obstacles and the challenges. There’s always the ambition to streamline processes in an effort to preserve time, money, and energy—typically that’s where technology proves useful.
Wireless sensors are excellent tools for the agricultural arsenal. But they’re no match for the supercomputer of the human brain and the instincts one develops when working the land for a living. During our exploration into the science of grape growing, we were inspired to successfully approach the local school district regarding the creation of a viticulture program, potentially the first of its kind in the state, right here at Mason High School.
The high-tech gadgets, the exchange of information between local growers, and the instruction of forthcoming generations all influence the direction of Robert Clay Vineyards as well as other vineyards in Mason County. This is the reality of grape farming in central Texas in 2015: it’s one part digital, two parts instinct, four parts cooperation, a lot of empty boxes and a moth fluttering between cupped hands.