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Grapes finding their net worth

By Dave Buchanan
Take a drive through the vinelands in the Grand Valley, spin the wheel to Orchard Mesa and on to the North Fork Valley and you'll see that most growers have put out the bird netting, a sure sign that their grapes are starting to turn color. Which means ripening is fast underway. When the grapes turn from green to purple or black, it's like an "Eat Here" sign for birds, and unless a grape grower moves fast, waiting a few days can mean losing an entire crop. "I've seen thousands of starlings circle around and try to get our grapes," said John Behr of Whitewater Hill Vineyards on 32 Road. "There are some places where they don't net, but we can have a severe bird problem here in the valley." The nets mostly are a polyethylene mesh designed to drape over the leaf canopy and keep birds from reaching the grapes. When grapes lose their leaf cover, there's no support for the nets, but by then your grapes probably aren't any good, anyway. It's not often that a grape grower will lose an entire crop to marauding birds, but Behr said everyone has a war story or two to share. "O, yeah, everyone has had the same experience," he said casually. "Many years ago, like maybe 1998 or 99, before we had bird nets, the birds would clean us out. Luckily it wasn't a very big crop, but still we lost it." Not every place needs to net but the orchards and riparian areas along the Colorado River attract more birds than, say, Doug Vogel might see at his Reeder Mesa vineyards near Whitewater. Although it can be expensive to net (some nets cost nearly$2 a foot, so 50 100-foot rows start to add up), it's more expensive when you lose your grapes. And if you don't net,and your neighbors do, the birds seem to know that, Behr said. "If you don't net, they'll find you," he said. He pointed at a dead cottonwood tree at the edge of his vineyards. "I've seen hundreds of starling sitting in that tree, just waiting to eat our grapes. Netting is the only way to go."