Grape growers in the Napa and Sonoma wine countries are supporting an innovative pilot program to employ dogs to sniff out a pernicious pest in the vineyards.
Some 20 Golden Retrievers have been trained since birth to detect the destructive vine mealybug. The advantage that dogs bring to the project is their noses.
“The promise of the dogs is that they can detect it earlier than any human and the growers can spot-treat it rather than be faced with a full-blown infestation. The nose on that dog can find it early,” says Jennifer Kopp, executive director of the Napa Valley Grape Growers.
Napa’s Domaine Chandon winery has been a major contributor to the project. Director of Wine Growing Rick Aldine says the idea was an easy sell. “The concept of using a dog as a tool against a pest that’s causing a lot of damage and costing us money was a no-brainer.”
It’s also a concept that dovetails with sustainable farming. “Treatments for vine mealybug fly in the face of all our sustainable farming efforts,” adds Kopp. “Using chemicals long term is very harmful and very expensive.”
Applying pesticides and using farm labor to battle the pests adds $1,000 per acre to the cost of farming, but with the dogs, “The cost we’re paying the dog is the dog chow,” says Aldine.
The program is still in the trial phase. On Friday, August 3, Chandon deployed members of a trained litter of dogs into its vineyards for field experience. “This year, the aim was to deploy dogs to field test the concept,” said Aldine. “The hope is that by summer, 2008, we’ll actually have service dogs performing in the vineyards.”
Napa and Sonoma vintners and grape growers contributing since 2005 to the training program, run by the Assistance Dog Institute in Santa Rosa, Ca., include Hudson Vineyards, Duckhorn Winery, Beckstoffer Vineyards, the Napa Valley Grape Growers and Sonoma vintner Saralee Kunde.