Protecting California’s grape crops with ice

Californian vineyards are turning to an Israeli company to protect their valuable grape crops from frost damage with a freezing ‘igloo’ that coats the grapevine buds in ice.

Rimon-Winery-Wines
A simple add-on to a PIP pulsator coats grapes in California with a coating of ice to protect them from frost damage.

With much at stake, grape growers in California’s Napa Valley and Sonoma County can’t take the news of a frost warning too lightly. Plummeting temperatures in the winter do serious damage to grape crops and their loss can cost millions of dollars, not to mention translates into fewer bottles of some of the world’s finest wine.

Now grape growers and vintners like Sonoma County’s Kendall Jackson, who has 14,000 acres of vines to protect, are turning to an Israeli company to protect their grapes from frost damage.

PIP (Pulsating Irrigation Products) offers an irrigation technology that coats the growing grape bud with a fine layer of ice. It may sound counterintuitive, but like an igloo protecting the Inuit people in Canada’s north, a coating of ice can shield young buds on a grape vine very nicely from temperatures that fall below zero. And it’s far more effective than other conventional solutions, which rely on giant fan heaters to keep the grapes warm.

One of the difficulties of frost protection like this, however, is flow and water pressure. When it comes to a frost warning, grape growers have to act fast. They know a coating of ice on the vines can help mitigate damage, but if they turn on their irrigation systems at one go, they are unlikely to have enough water pressure for the whole vineyard, explains Roee Ruttenberg, PIP’s CEO. As a result they tend to separate parts of irrigation system, turning on sections one at a time.

“[By doing this] you risk losing a large chunk of your harvest,” warns Ruttenberg. “When you are talking about grapes for wine, that can amount to millions of dollars.”

Low flow means fast action

The advantage of the PIP Pulsator 200 irrigation system, one of a number of PIP solutions in agriculture, is that it allows irrigation devices to operate at a very low flow, (0.02 liters per hour), explains Ruttenberg. He claims it is the lowest pulse of water of any drip irrigation system on the market today. “The flow is so low, when temperatures drop to freezing, the entire system is turned on and creates ice over the vineyards,” he says.

The PIP frost protection solution can be added to existing irrigation systems and switched on the moment a farmer receives notice of a frost warning. A PIP device, each of which costs $5, is installed every six meters of vine. It is already being sold throughout California and Chile.

The foundations for the PIP Pulsator 200 were laid down in the 1980s by Ruttenberg’s father, Israeli inventor Gideon Ruttenberg, an engineer from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.

The first device was called the Pulsator and the product’s advantage, according to Ruttenberg, was that it could deliver an extremely low pulse of water to the plants. This reduced soil tension so the plants didn’t have to work as hard to collect water; it eliminated the growing problem of salt leaching by having less water on the ground available for evaporation, and allowed more water to travel in the soil to more roots, to avoid the gravity pull found in high-flow systems.

Working as a consultant at the time to many high-profile irrigation companies, Gideon licensed the device to a partner company, which sold it on to companies all over the world.

Sitting on an irrigation gold mine

Two decades later, in 2002, after a lengthy legal battle with the partner company, the license was finally returned to the family. Ruttenberg, who was working as a part-time TV producer for the Arab news network Al Jazeera in Mexico and the US, was very much aware of the global water crisis, and realized that the return of the technology to the family meant he was sitting on a veritable gold mine.

“We were covering stories about the economic meltdown, the global water crisis and Third World starvation… and I thought to myself, ‘my father has invented a product that could help alleviate all of those,’” says Ruttenberg. “So I decided to come to Israel, register an Israeli company, acquire the rights from the US company, and develop, market, produce and export the Pulsator products under the Israeli name.”

He returned to Israel in 2009, and using royalties and sales from the original model, he founded PIP in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, to market new technologies based on the original system.

His father, who is still very much involved in the business, works as chief engineer and is currently developing new products like pulsating drippers and a pulsating flexible pop-up dripper, as well as an updated third generation design for frost protection that will cover larger areas with even lower flow.

The company of six relies on sales, R&D grants and venture funding to pay for development. PIP, which also continues to sell irrigation devices based on the core technology, the Pulsator 100, is currently seeking an investment of about three million dollars for various projects.

“Everyone knows that if you are able to give crops, which really need minimal water, the water that they require, spread out over time, you get lots of benefits,” Roee concludes.

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About Karin Kloosterman

Karin Kloosterman lives in Jaffa, Israel. She is a journalist, writer and blogger who focuses on the environment and clean technology from Israel and the Middle East. Published in hundreds of newspapers around the world, Karin also writes for the Huffington Post and Green Prophet.