Retiring operations manager’s career highlights program’s successes
Washington’s grape industry has seen accelerating growth over the past several decades. That momentum is owed, in part, to the vision and hard work of people like Gary Ballard, the retiring operations manager of Washington State University’s Clean Plant Center Northwest Grape Program.
Formerly known as the NorthWest Grape Foundation Service, the Clean Plant Center has been producing “clean” grapevines for Northwest growers since 1961. Now in its tenth year under its current name and structure, the center is a reliable source for growers to buy planting stock from 300 grapevine varieties that are state-certified as being tested free of 30 targeted viruses.
Ballard—who graduated from WSU in 1971 with a master’s degree in plant pathology—will retire in April after 12 years as the Clean Plant Center’s operations manager and a career focused on plant pathology. In 2003, he left a lucrative private industry job to work for WSU, out of conviction for what he believes a clean-plant program means for the grape industry.
Viruses cause smaller yields and lower quality fruits—which end up costing growers, winemakers and consumers. Today, thanks to the work of Ballard and many others, vineyard owners who choose healthy, virus-tested planting material continue to see greater yields and higher quality grapes.
Providing clean grapevines to the Northwest and beyond
The Clean Plant Center is part of the National Clean Plant Network, which promotes the use of healthy plant material for important specialty crops in the United States. The University of California at Davis serves as headquarters for the grapevine network, with other centers located at Florida A&M University, Missouri State University and Cornell University.
In the Northwest, clean plants are produced at the Clean Plant Center’s foundation vineyard at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. Customers include certified nurseries, university and federal research programs, and grape growers in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and beyond.
“We’re still a Pacific Northwest organization, although it seems we’re becoming a main source for the northern states and eastern seaboard states,” Ballard said. Sometimes growers purchase vines from the Clean Plant Center because their climate matches Washington’s more than other centers that are geographically closer.
“We go a little bit further because of the crown gall disease that happens quite often in the northern states,” said Ballard, explaining why the Clean Plant Center ships grapevines as far as New York, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas. “Grapevines can suffer winter injury and if there’s bacteria inside that plant, it causes the onset of crown gall disease. If there’s no damage, then that bacteria lies latent. In warmer climates where you don’t get cold weather injury, it’s not a problem, so they don’t deal with it to the extent we do.”
Kevin Judkins is co-owner of Inland Desert Nursery along with his father Tom and brother Jerry. They are the largest certified nursery for grapevines in Washington. Judkins said the protocols to combat diseases such as crown gall that California was not dealing with were improved in 2004, after Ballard came on board.
In 2003, WSU viticulture professor Markus Keller hired Ballard to manage the NorthWest Grape Foundation Service. Keller led the program at the time.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” Keller said. “Gary doesn’t just work with clean grapevines, he IS clean grapevines. Without him, the program simply would not have happened.”
“My role in the program was to basically do it,” Ballard explained. “At that time there were three of us in the program, excluding Markus: me, myself and I. I did all the tissue culture work. I did all the greenhouse maintenance. I developed a foundation vineyard and did all the maintenance there as well.”
Soon Ballard was so busy that he needed help. Around this same time, WSU merged their clean plant programs for grapes, fruit trees and hops under Director Ken Eastwell.
The plant doctor is in
Despite carefully coordinated efforts by growers and the Washington Department of Agriculture to keep infected grapevines out of Washington, plant pathogens infiltrate the borders from time to time and clean plants become infected when weakened by stress or environmental damage. That’s when WSU grape virologist Naidu Rayapati steps in to diagnose and treat grapevine ailments. He works with industry stakeholders, nurseries and regulatory agencies to implement best management practices for healthy vineyards.
Until 2013, grapevine redleaf (red blotch) disease in Washington vineyards was mistaken for grapevine leafroll disease. Similarities in the symptoms—a red discoloration of the leaves and reduced fruit yields at harvest—make it difficult to differentiate the two pathogens. When checking for viruses in symptomatic vines, however, Rayapati discovered that some of these vines tested negative for grapevine leafroll disease and developed a detection method for redleaf disease.
Identifying pathogens and finding solutions maintain the health, quality and productivity of Washington’s grape and wine industry, but it also comes with a considerable price tag. The alternative, however, is more costly in the long run.
If a disease spreads from illegally imported vines, not only can the grower be fined, but they may have to rip out the whole block of vines, said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, a group that has been instrumental in educating growers about the benefits of using clean plants and the disadvantages of risking it.
The National Clean Plant Network has been federally funded since 2009, which is one reason the Clean Plant Center foundation block advisory group is a tri-state effort, according to Mike Means, group chair and vineyard manager at Chateau Ste. Michelle, the largest wine producer in Washington. Including Oregon and Idaho in Washington’s clean plant efforts supports the health of the region and encourages those states to add to the federal funding that sustains the program.
In 2011, the Washington Wine Industry Foundation surveyed the grower community to measure their awareness of clean plants and understanding of disease. Results showed the need to educate the growers. Since then, WSU and various grape-growing and wine industry associations have made a concerted effort to share information through workshops, publications in both English and Spanish, and clean plant field trips that include tastings comparing grapes from healthy and diseased vines.
Order clean vines early for best selection
Growers should plan to order clean vines more than one year in advance whether they are purchasing from the Clean Plant Center or a certified nursery. The center gives priority to orders placed before December 15 from customers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, but increasingly Ballard receives requests from outside the Northwest.
Demand has grown to the point where one of Ballard’s last projects is creating a tissue-culture-generated plantlet, or young plant, of patented table grape vines from the University of Arkansas. Plantlet material is typically created in-house to clean up a plant and establish material for the Clean Plant Center foundation vineyard. However, this material will be sold to a vineyard in South Africa and needs to remain in plantlet form to meet that country’s quarantine requirements.
Whether it’s propagating clean planting material for growers in the Northwest or somewhere else in the world, Ballard has enjoyed providing a service to the industry as a whole.
“WSU has given me the opportunity to do that with assistance and guidance where needed,” he recalled. “Along with the successful raising of my kids and a full-term marriage, those three things are what I consider the major accomplishments in my life.”
– Erika Holmes