Growing grapes: Viticulture program continues to progress
Sheridan – Sadanand Dhekney came to Sheridan just over a year ago, but he’s been researching grapes for 10 years and sees promise for the potential to grow grapes in Wyoming.
“I see the best potential for growing any horticultural crop in Wyoming in grapes,” says Dhekney. “Our climate is so hot and dry that we can almost grow grapes organically.”
Dhekney is an assistant professor of horticulture at the Sheridan Research and Extension Center, and his research focuses on identifying varieties that are well-supported to tolerate the cold weather, drought and salinity in Wyoming.
In Wyoming, between 25 and 30 operations throughout the state grow grapes. Producers are spread throughout the state across a wide variety of elevations and conditions.
The interest in Wyoming for grapes typically comes from growers, homeowners and people involved in wine production.
“There are a lot of people who buy grapes or get juice from California to make wine in Wyoming,” says Dhekney. “They are interested in making wine from Wyoming-grown grapes.”
“With an increase in grape production, we will see a lot of the people who are on the wine making side to start establishing wineries,” he says. “There is huge potential, but there has been no research-based information for growers to use.”
Dhekney explains that in much of the U.S., the grape industry sees problems with fungi and viruses.
“If you look at major grape production regions in the U.S., vineyards are sprayed between 10 and 15 times a year for controlling fungal diseases,” he explains. “Any grapes that you see in the grocery store have been heavily sprayed just to sustain the crop.”
However, Wyoming’s climate doesn’t promote the growth of diseases.
“In Wyoming, while we don’t have a lot of viticulture, our growers don’t use any fungicides,” he adds. “The reason is that our climate is so suitable. It’s so hot and dry that we don’t have fungal diseases. That is a huge advantage for Wyoming.”
“We have good weather, a good climate and new varieties,” Dhekney comments, noting that work is continuing to identify varieties that are capable of being very successful in the state. “Grapes are grown in every state in the Midwest, and they all have disease and virus problems. Wyoming is at a selective advantage to grow grapes.”
A major limitation for grape production is the short growing season.
“There has been a lot of breeding work for the development of new varieties,” says Dhekney.
Researchers across the U.S., particularly in Minnesota and New York, have been working with germplasm to develop a variety that can withstand cold winters.
As part of developing new varieties, Dhekney uses biotechnology and advanced techniques in molecular genetics to improve existing varieties.
“We have varieties that are cold hardy but don’t have drought or salinity tolerance,” he says. “It is difficult to introduce traits for drought-tolerance using traditional breeding.”
Because the grape genome is heterozygous, traditional breeding makes it much more difficult to introduce the genes that Dhekney is interested in using to produce varieties that are suitable to Wyoming’s environmental challenges.
Dhekney also notes that convincing growers to utilize new varieties obtained from traditional breeding is problematic.
“It is very difficult to convince them that new varieties are better and would be advantageous to existing grapes, like chardonnay or merlot,” he notes. “We are using existing varieties – the chardonnays and merlots – and through biotechnological approaches, we start introducing genes of interest.”
Using biotechnology, he says, the grapes maintain all of their existing characteristics and also have the added trait.
In modifying grapes, however, Dhekney notes that there are some challenges.
“The grape genome was sequenced in 2007,” he says, “and finding the genes is relatively easy, since we have the whole physical DNA sequence. There is a lot of work on isolating genes. The problem is, there is a gap between getting the genes and putting them into place.”
While researchers have been able to identify genes of interest, incorporating them into the genome was more challenging.
“People are having difficulty putting the genes into the grape,” says Dhekney. “We have refined techniques where we can efficiently insert genes and look at what they are doing in modified vines.”
Dhekney has continued to research both in the field and the lab to find a variety that works well in the state.
Working with growers
“We also interact a lot with the growers,” says Dhekney. “The first thing I did when I came here was talk to growers.”
“Considering that Wyoming has such different elevations and topographical conditions, it is hard to provide recommendations,” he says of working with producers, “but we work with individual growers in different areas.”
“It isn’t a very big industry, but it has the potential to grow into a big industry,” he comments. “I’ve been finding out what their problems are.”
By working with growers, Dhekney is targeting his research to help producers.
One of the issues that Wyoming producers see is cold damage, for example. Dhekney has worked to collect samples and estimate the amount of cold damage in vineyards. From there, he can provide individualized recommendations on damage reduction.
Continuing research to help Wyoming’s producers will continue to help the industry grow, Dhekney adds.
Dhekney’s research is supported through grants from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture and UW’s Agricultural Experiment Station, as well as the Department of Plant Sciences in the UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. He also actively collaborates with Sheridan College in several research and teaching endeavors.
Sadanand Dhekney’s research career has recently received recognition by the Society for In Vitro Biology. Dhekney will receive the organization’s Young Scientist Award during the 2013 In Vitro Biology meeting in Providence, R.I. in June.
“The award is for my work in grape biotechnology, and it is really important for grape research at UW because our program is relatively new,” he explains. “Getting this award raises awareness of our program to another level.”
“It gives the grape program a boost for the kind of basic and applied research we conduct and is useful to growers in Wyoming,” Dhekney adds.
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at email@example.com.