Wine grapes
A project by Oregon State University aims to protect wine grapes from “smoke taint.” (Lasseter Winery/Unsplash)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced $2 million in grants to bolster food producers and educate the public about Oregon crops

Originally published by Oregon Capital Chronicle. For more coverage related to Oregon state government, politics and policy, visit the Oregon Capital Chronicle website.

Oregon’s wine industry, which has been hard hit by recent wildfires, might not have to worry so much about smoke spoiling grapes in the future.

A plan is in the works to protect grapes from “smoke taint” that fouls the taste of wine. 

The research project by Oregon State University is among 15 projects that just won $2 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of its annual specialty block grants. Oregon is a big producer of specialty crops, which include fruit, vegetables, tree nuts, Christmas trees and nursery crops. 

“We’re the sixth or seventh largest state for specialty crops” depending on the year, said Gabrielle Ugalde, specialty crop block grant program coordinator at the Oregon Agriculture Department. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded a total of nearly $170 million nationwide, with $73 million allocated through the 2018 Farm Bill and an extra $97 million from an appropriations act this year. 

“This historic level of funding will help the specialty crops industry recover from the effects of the pandemic,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement. 

The wildfires that swept across the state during the pandemic caused many vintners in Oregon, Washington and California to abandon their grapes and not produce any wine. That hit them in their pockets and deprived residents of local production.

The wildfire threat is not going away but OSU researchers hope to mitigate the threat to Oregon’s wine industry by developing safe coatings for grapes that keep smoke out.

The university has a team specialized in creating edible coatings for food and evaluating the impact of smoke on grapes and wine, it said in its program summary.

The plan will build on previous research in 2015 for cherries. University specialists developed an edible spray-on coating for them that acts like a raincoat and prevents them from splitting in a downpour. Growers spray it on their orchards twice a year. A similar product could help vintners protect wine grapes from smoke, mildew spores and pesticides from neighboring farms, said Tom Danowski, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board.

“Consumers could see the benefits in (a) greater supply of wines as fewer tons of grapes are lost to fire smoke, and there could also be reductions in  sprays used to combat mildew,” Danowski wrote in an email.

The project was awarded $167,000. 

Five other Oregon State University projects won awards that could help the environment and diversity and protect Oregon’s crops:

• A team received $169,000 to study alternatives to chlorpyrifos, a toxic insecticide that can cause neurological problems in children and impair their brain function. This summer the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it was ending its use.

• Another group was awarded $169,000 to train farmers to grow Asian vegetables and medicinal herbs.

• A plan to study ways to detect and prevent wild carrots from contaminating farmed carrot seed won $149,000.

• A project designed to educate farmers about hydroponic systems received $174,000. These systems, which grow plants in elements other than soil, are expensive to set up and require intense monitoring but use less water than regular farming.

• The biggest project won $175,000 to study the best ways to irrigate vineyards. 

Water shortages also spawned a project by Chemeketa Community College which won $89,000 to teach students, farmers and community about dry farming. The technique uses moisture control methods to irrigate crops.

“These experiences will directly teach students and the community about specialty crop research, production, and consumption,” Tim Ray, dean of agriculture sciences and technology at the college, said in a statement.

While the focus of the grants are often on research, they’re also used to educate the public, Ugalde said.

The Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation will use an $81,000 grant for a project to expose middle school and high school science students to Oregon’s specialty crops through recorded conversations, virtual field trips and workshops with scientists, researchers and farmers. And the Umpqua Valley Farm to School program received $68,000 to give students hands-on experience on farms and bolstering ties between farms and schools.

Besides these grants, another $2.7 million has been earmarked to stem the impact of Covid-19 on the agriculture industry. Ugalde hopes to announce those winning projects in early December.