Technology Boosts Grape Quality, Saves Water

Oregon BEST makes impact investment in Oregon-grown technology that saves water and fine-tunes plant stress to boost crop quality, flavor

PORTLAND, Ore. – Applying stress to grapevines by withholding irrigation during key periods of the growing season can influence everything from the size and yield of the ripened fruit to the flavor of wine made from the grapes.

An Oregon startup is receiving impact investment support from Oregon BEST to team with researchers at Oregon State University and the Washington State University to fast-track a new technology that helps vineyard owners monitor soil water tension and more precisely manage irrigation, which can both control plant stress and save water.

SmartVineyards LLC, based in Portland, has developed a system of sensors, software and machine learning tools that wirelessly monitors soil water tension, while factoring in historical weather data, soil properties, and other information to help growers influence production.

SmartVineyards oil tension sensors in pinot noir vineyardSoil water tension refers to the tension in the soil that a plant pulls against to bring water up into the vine. When soils are wet, this tension is low. In drier soils, the tension is high, which can be manipulated to subject the plant to stress. By installing SmartVineyards' sensors (pictured, right) three feet deep in the root zone, growers can use data from different soil depths to precisely apply or withhold irrigation at specific times to influence foliage growth, size of the grapes, phenolic content, etc.

"It turns out that what's important when monitoring water use and plant stress is not how much water is in the soil, but how easily that water can be pulled from the soil by the plant," said Alan Campbell, co-founder and CEO of SmartVineyards. "So we offer a tool that helps farmers make precise irrigation decisions based on real-time soil and weather monitoring, plus a wide range of additional stored information, such as historical weather data, grape variety, soil type, the typography of the land and other factors."

For example, if an irrigation pattern and plant stress in a prior year returned good results, the grower can duplicate this same watering and stress pattern using the SmartVineyards system to attain a similar quality of grapes. "With this technology, growers can stress plants more, or less, at precise times, and monitor soil water tension at different soil depths," Campbell said. “A grower might want to change the irrigation volume when the fruit sets to reduce the canopy growth, then maintain target stress levels at various soil depths to impact fruit development."

Hector Dominguez, SmartVineyards’ co-founder and CTO, returned to the U.S. to pursue business opportunities after completing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley and a Ph.D. in robotics at the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City. Dominguez said the SmartVineyards system is complicated because it involves such a wide range of science and technology. "We are putting together machine learning, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, IOT and the latest scientific developments in plant physiology," Dominquez said. "Without Oregon BEST's support, it would have taken a very long time to get to where we are now."

SmartVineyards system layout in vineyardAlthough the startup is focused on the vineyards market initially, the technology can also be applied to crops like onions, potatoes, cherries, apples, blueberries, hazelnuts and hops. Irrigation stress in onions can influence the vegetable's core shape as well as its shelf life, Campbell said. And applying plant stress in apple orchards might have the potential to avoid brown spots known as bitter pit.

SmartVineyards has installed its technology in more than 15 locations in Washington, Oregon, and California, including a test plot for Washington's oldest winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, which produces more than two million cases of wine annually and owns several estate vineyards in eastern Washington, including one where SmartVineyards operates a test plot.

The startup is working with a cross-disciplinary team of five researchers that includes OSU professors Clinton Shock (crop and soil science), Chad Higgins (biological and ecological engineering), Sharmodeep Bhattacharyya (statistics) and Raviv Raich (electrical engineering), as well as WSU professor Marcus Keller (viticulture and enology).

"We are fortunate to be working with such a diverse team of university experts to develop this technology," Campbell said. "Oregon BEST was very helpful in putting together this collaboration, which has provided valuable technical assistance and given us credibility with our early customers."

Oregon BEST offers business support and other services to cleantech startups that have the potential for global impact. It has invested $250,000 into the SmartVineyards project, including the university research team.

"We are excited about the technology SmartVineyards has developed because of its potential to impact water conservation worldwide while boosting crop yields," said David Kenney, President and Executive Director of Oregon BEST. "Given the impact climate change is having on global weather patterns, we must find more innovative ways to save water while increasing agriculture production."

MEDIA CONTACT: Gregg Kleiner, 541.740.9654
SOURCES: David Kenney, Oregon BEST, 503.780.8736; Hector Dominguez, SmartVineyards, 971.221.1449; Alan Campbell, SmartVineyards, 503.502.6302

About SmartVineyards LLC
SmartVineyards has developed an innovative, cost-effective soil moisture monitoring system designed to provide accurate, timely and actionable data for managing vineyard irrigation to attain highest quality production. The technology, which has been installed at 15 locations in California, Oregon and Washington can also be applied to other crops, including onions, potatoes, apples, blueberries, cherries and hops. The startup is currently part of the Portland State Business Accelerator cohort.