Countryside: May 2023

The spotted lantern fly is an invasive insect plaguing plants, especially grapes, across the globe. Photo by Luke Hayes/Virginia Tech.

“Nose Work” New Weapon Against Spotted Lanternfly 

Perhaps you’ve noticed that your dog does nothing to contribute to the community beyond lifting spirits and providing unconditional love. Or he or she may be a little bored, flopping down with a sigh or two when there’s nothing going on. 

Maybe it’s time to encourage your dog to work for its biscuits and bones, like the industrious Flint, an 8-year-old Border Collie who’s been toiling in the vineyards of southwest Virginia, searching out the dreaded spotted lanternfly, the super-destructive, colorful pest inexorably marching towards Western Albemarle’s grape and fruit crops. 

Sally Dickinson, a doctoral candidate in the School of Animal Sciences at Virginia Tech, has trained Flint to sniff out lanternfly eggs and signal their location. While he’s at it, Flint also lets her know where he smells powdery mildew, another big enemy of agriculture. Whether these scents are pleasant to Flint we do not know: he’s also been trained to find cadavers buried far under the earth or in the water. 

Sally Dickinson and her trained detection dog, Flint, search the vineyard at the Winchester AREC for spotted lantern fly egg masses. They are beginning to recruit other people with their dogs to do the same. It’s a four-year project funded by the USDA. Photo by Luke Hayes/Virginia Tech.

Dickinson and Flint are working with Erica Feuerbacher, an associate professor of applied animal welfare and behavior in the School of Animal Sciences, and Mizuho Nita, a Virginia Cooperative Extension specialist and an associate professor in the School for Plant and Environmental Sciences, both at Virginia Tech.

The two academics were intrigued by what researchers at Texas Tech University were doing to combat pests and diseases with the help of dogs and their owners, and they asked to be part of the project. They approached Dickinson with their idea and quickly brought her on board. She became a student of Feuerbacher’s, and the two women quickly recognized that they shared a deep love for dogs. 

In an interview, Feuerbacher spoke of “nose work,” competitions for dogs to seek out a particular smell and then notify their owners. Leashing the power of a dog’s 300 million olfactory receptors is nothing new: Dogs have been used to detect missing people, narcotics, and explosives. Nose work has also become an increasingly popular dog sport, Feuerbacher said, with lots of sanctioned competitions.

The researchers knew that dogs have the potential ability to detect relevant targets. Dogs vary in their sense of smell, but the least sensitive of them has between 10,000 and 100,000 times the ability of humans. Dickinson doesn’t rule out any dog, including pug-like dogs who are not known for their sense of smell.

The sense of smell is there in all of them, but owners also must train their dogs to give some kind of signal when they smell the eggs or the mildew. That takes a reward of some kind, Dickinson said. In training Flint, she used food rewards to encourage him to signal. Dogs do this, each in their own way. They might bark, nudge their owner, or stop at the clutch of eggs they’ve discovered. 

Feuerbacher and Dickinson are working with the National Association of Canine Scent Work to recruit teams of dogs and their owners to find spotted lanternfly eggs. Feuerbacher believes that, in addition to helping their community, dogs and their owners will have a lot of fun together.

Both Feurbacher and Dickinson believe that scent training may also contribute to positive behavioral changes in dogs.

The study, funded by a $475,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture over four years, will allow the researchers to build a strong network of handlers and their dogs who are able to locate spotted lanternfly egg masses and create a citizen-based detection program for this and other invasive species. The first step has been to encourage citizen-scientists with dogs to get in touch, so they can attend a training that will coach them in the best ways to train their dogs, and some Charlottesville teams have already been assembled. 

To find out more, ask questions, or apply for training, email Sally Dickinson at [email protected].

Growers Wait for Lasting Warmth

Timely irrigation and other interventions have helped keep local strawberries out of the icy clutch of frosty mornings. Critzer Family Farm has offered some limited picking, in between irrigation and recent rains. The berries are coming in over at Chiles Family Orchard, and Cynthia Chiles predicts that conditions will change day by day, but it’s too early to know exactly how many threats to the berries and other fruits loom in the future. She said experience has taught her and other local orchardists that it’s possible to have frosty weather well into the middle of May. “At this point we look to have a decent strawberry crop and are looking forward to a good peach crop,” she said.   

Chiles acknowledged that there are still a few weeks coming where overnight temperatures could play havoc. “My dad always says you have to get past Mother’s Day, and you might remember there was a devastating freeze a few years ago on Mother’s Day morning, when most of the wineries lost all their grapes and other fruits were affected,” she said.  “So, we’re still being very cautious in our projections on crops.”

New Legislation Protects Farm Wineries

Local farm wineries won a quiet but significant victory with the passage of new farm winery legislation (SB 983) in March. Introduced by Montgomery “Monty” Mason of Williamsburg, the legislation met with unanimous approval by Virginia’s lawmakers. Our recent unsettled springs remind us that those who grow and process their own grapes have huge investments in the land, huge risks with the weather, and a mandate to make the best wine available from the fruit they have. Because of their investment, they’re very different from what George Hodson calls “faux wineries” that neither grow nor ferment wine, but position themselves as event centers serving wine. Hodson is the CEO of Veritas Vineyards and member of the Virginia Wine Board. 

New regulations require farm wineries to have three acres of grapes planted.

The new law changes many of the requirements and privileges for winery and farm winery licenses. Hodson, along with Stuart King of King Family Vineyards, spoke about farm wineries at the Lodge at Old Trail in April. Along with other changes, those calling themselves farm wineries must have planted three acres of grapes. Hodson said it was not the intention of the legislation to prevent new wineries, and those starting out have a time period to comply. Rather, the law distinguishes between authentic agricultural operations and those designed to stage events without assuming the expense and risk of farming or fermenting wine.

Heifers and Calves Bring Top Dollar in Staunton

Late last month, a special sale of young heifers with their first calves was a popular event at the Staunton Union Stockyard’s regular Tuesday sale. Travis Funkhouser, the stockyard’s manager, highlighted a lot of three two-year-olds that, with their nursing calves, brought in $3,400 for the pair; another lot of three commanded $3,300 for each pair. A lot of 11 fall-bred heifers sold for $2,700 each. A later sale featured 50 older heifers with larger calves, which also sold well, Funkhouser said. “People recognize the quality of these local cows, usually from someone they know of.”

That will be the case later in May, when 90 fall-bred heifers raised by Weyers Cave farmer and North River Supervisor Jeff Slavens will be sold. That auction is May 13 at 3 p.m. 

Steers between 300 and 500 pounds did well in the regular sales (top earners were $293 per hundred weight, compared to $280 in March), followed by bulls weighing 300 to 400 pounds ($281 per hundred weight, compared to $269 in March), and heifers weighing 300 to 500 pounds, ($224 per hundred weight, compared to $220 in March). 


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here