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Viticulturists learning by doing, not only by listening: participatory on farm trials for sustainable viticulture

Vanessa Hood and David Shearer

Agriculture Victoria, Knoxfield. Institute for Horticultural Development, Private Bag 15, Scoresby Business Centre, Victoria, 3176, Australia (Ph: +61 3 9210 9222; Fax: +61 3 9800 3521; E-mail:


The inherent variability in climate, soil and management styles between viticultural regions in Australia means that new viticultural practices require regional assessment and validation.

“Participatory On Farm Trials for Sustainable Viticulture” introduces a model for improving viticultural management practices, by supporting growers to validate research outcomes on their own vineyard. It enables and empowers growers to test new practices and make informed decisions about vineyard management based on their trial results. The “Participatory On-Farm Trials” model also allows growers to make a valuable contribution to the viticultural understanding of the region and to ultimately influence changes in practice.

The project takes an integrated approach to the development, evaluation and adoption of sustainable vineyard management practices, through collaboration between viticulturists and researchers from different disciplines. Through “Participatory On-Farm Trials” growers are able to define their research needs and assess practices themselves on a regional basis. Participating researchers can develop skills in identifying and developing new areas of research and implementing effective technology transfer. They also benefit by having their research validated in different regions.

A consultative process identifies grower and regional needs. Researchers are directly involved with growers, helping them to test new ideas on their vineyards in a rigorous scientific manner. Other growers, within and beyond the region are able to benefit from the trial results, thus increasing the acceptance and adoption of improved practices.


The “Participatory On-Farm Trials” model, part of the Viticare initiative, is a Cooperative Research Centre for Viticulture (CRCV) project designed to encourage the development of innovative ideas and to enhance the diffusion of knowledge from research outcomes.

Researchers and supporting technical officers located in 7 regions throughout NSW, Victoria and South Australia, provide the expertise in viticultural technologies and trial management to support participating growers.

Forty growers across the regions are contributing their time, effort and resources to test trial designs, research methodologies and measurement techniques. The participation of these forty growers has strong scientific and practical support from viticultural researchers.


In each of the participating regions, growers initially became involved through existing groups and individual contacts. Workshops were then held with these growers in each region. The workshops were used to introduce participants to basic trial management skills and to clarify the goals of “On-Farm Trials”. Regional team spirit increased as a result of these workshops and effective cooperative working relationships were established between researchers and growers.

Throughout the season, growers and researchers were in regular contact by telephone, fax, email etc. One-on-one visits also occurred, and were popular with growers, as it helped clarify their understanding of trial management.

One-on-one visits also helped researchers learn about the complexity of vineyard management and the level of priority that growers put on trials.


A diverse range of growers is involved in “On-Farm Trials”. Some are new to the industry, some have a wealth of experience, and some run independent one-person operations and others are part of larger operations. They have all become involved for varying reasons. Some hope:

  • to gain general skills and knowledge for conducting successful trials
  • to learn more about their own vineyard
  • to interact with other growers in their region
  • to become involved in the information network that On Farm trials creates

Growers generally were most interested in assessing the effects of different management practices in their own vineyards by learning new procedures and by gathering their own data.

As with all horticultural systems it is important to base practice-change on long-term results that are statistically valid and not short-term trends or ‘gut feelings’. The “Participatory On-Farm Trials” model creates a framework for growers to actively create site-specific and regionally relevant data.

The initial implementation of the model has highlighted that the successful management of vineyard trials is complex and requires a considerable time commitment. Larger organisations with ‘in house’ technical support are able to carry out trial work independently. In contrast, growers who only have a small workforce find it more difficult to make the time commitment necessary to conduct a successful trial. Never the less, a trial can give results that are relevant to the grower’s particular vineyard and may help change management practices.

“Most grape growers experiment with their own trials with disappointing or incorrectly collated results” said one participant. On Farm Trials helps to avoid this disappointment and instead, gives growers the skills and support to conduct successful trials. “These results, when replicated with other growers and other regions, will enhance my viticultural operations with new and improved techniques to produce better quality grapes and wine”, the participant stated.

Knowledge, attitude, skills and aspiration

The “Participatory On-Farm Trials” model builds on other education and extension models by encouraging growers to test and validate research outcomes. The model increases the knowledge and skills of growers. It enables them to rigorously and successfully validate new technologies in their own vineyards. Growers develop a heightened understanding of the set-up and management of a trial and, in particular, the use of scientifically valid trial designs. Increased understanding of how trials are conducted successfully coupled with new abilities and confidence results in an increased number of successful trials.

Often growers use measurement techniques across an entire vineyard block, measuring aspects of vine growth and vigour, fruit quality and soil moisture. The “Participatory On-Farm Trials” model provides the skills to use these techniques and other new ones on a smaller scale, in a trial situation.

Growers have used trials to test the latest technology and practices. Yet unless these trials are appropriately designed and conducted, results may be of little value. Grower enthusiasm for trial work is supported by the “Participatory On-Farm Trials” model and gives them confidence in producing scientifically valid results.

Generally growers aspire to improve their management practices. “Participatory On-Farm Trials” gives them a system to be able to improve management practices and vineyard sustainability through the use of successful and rigorous trials.

Changing practice

The adoption of a change in practice is typically based upon sound knowledge. Trials are beginning to generate useful information for growers. This information, when added to already available knowledge (such as the outcomes of research and development), will be used to change practice. The information generated is site-specific and impacts directly on the vineyard practices.

Participating growers have already benefited from initial trial results and in a number of cases, management changes are currently being considered. Recent trial findings include the impact of composts and mulches, molybdenum application, different irrigation strategies, rust mite control strategies and the use of sacrificial canes.

The “Participatory On-Farm Trials” model allows the participating growers to evaluate the latest technologies, site–specifically, before choosing to change practice. It provides a middle step, allowing the successful validation of new technology before broader scale vineyard adoption.

The model presents two ways for growers to change practice:

1. Conducting a trial, following the guidelines set out by the “Participatory On Farm Trials” model. Participants have already made changes in this way, ie they are now conducting trials in a scientific manner, rather than in an ‘ad hoc’ way as they had done previously.

2. Changing vineyard management practices, based on the results of a trial conducted under the “Participatory On Farm Trials” model. The use of a trial becomes the middle step in changing practice i.e. Research and development → on farm trial → change of practice. Participants have not made changes in this way as yet, because more than one season’s data is required before a management decision can be made.

In future seasons, growers, other than the participants themselves, will also learn about the trials and may change their management practice based on the results.


The model presents one way for viticulturists to adopt new technologies. It gives scientific rigour to vineyard trials and allows valid conclusions to be drawn. These trial results can be used to change practice, adopting the latest technologies to improve vineyard sustainability.

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