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Student combines interest in viticulture and geography to benefit mountain vineyards

Lauren Hunter.jpgBOONE—Lauren Hunter has found a niche that combines her interests in biology, viticulture and geographic information systems technology.

Lauren Hunter_t2.jpgLauren Hunter used information collected by geosensors to research differences in soil temperature and moisture in a local vineyard. Use of such sensors could help mountain and steep slope vineyard owners better manage irrigation and fungicide application to improve grape quality. (Photo by university photographer Marie Freeman)

The Appalachian State University graduate student is researching the benefits of using geo- sensor technology to improve grape growing and grape quality in mountain vineyards.

Hunter received the Precision Agriculture Outstanding Graduate Student Award for 2008 from the International Conference on Precision Agriculture (ICPA) for her work. She is one of 10 graduate students from six countries to receive the award.

In addition to a cash award, Hunter also received a waiver of conference registration fees to attend the 9th ICPA conference in Denver Colo., July 20, where she will give a poster presentation of her research titled “A GIS Database Schema for Small-scale Precision Viticulture Using Geosensors.”

Hunter is from Marietta, Ga. She earned her undergraduate degree in biology from Appalachian and will complete her master’s degree in geography and geographic information systems in August.

According to the ICPA, precision agriculture utilizes advanced technologies, such as global positioning systems, geographic information systems and remote-sensing to enhance the efficiency, productivity, and profitability of agriculture production systems in an environmentally friendly manner.

Hunter conducted her research at Banner Elk Winery in Avery County. She received a $10,000 N.C. Beautiful grant to purchase and install soil temperature and moisture sensors at the winery and connect them to a network that collected and stored moisture and soil temperature data.

“I have been interested in vineyard research. Precision viticulture, where spatial technology is used to help manage vineyards, provides a connection between geography and viticulture,” she said.

“I wanted to apply research that is used in California vineyards to a mountain vineyard in North Carolina.”

Hunter also works part time as a research analyst in the Appalachian Center for Mountain and Steep Slope Viticulture on campus. “Lauren’s solid understanding of viticulture has been a major asset to the center,” said Norm Oches, the center’s director. “The viticulture related materials that she has gathered from around the world will be useful to people interested in putting in vineyards at higher elevations and on steep slopes, as part of Appalachian’s viticulture outreach program.”

While geosensor technology has been used in large corn-, cotton-and wheat-growing operations, its use in small-scale crops is limited.

Hunter said her goal is to combine the detailed climate, soil moisture and soil characteristics to define management zones within a vineyard. The information would help growers tailor irrigation, fertilization and fungicide application across the vineyard.

In her research paper Hunter writes that “since wine quality is intimately tied to the local environment, the integration of GIS and geosensors can help vineyard managers define, model and act in response to variations in local environmental conditions to produce high quality grapes.”

She hopes findings from her study can be used by vineyard managers to determine optimal spatial configurations for placing geosensors in a vineyard, optimal sampling intervals, and costs of installing a wireless sensor network.