Italian vineyards investigated with Google Earth
italian vineyards map
Locations of vineyards in Italy (courtesy Elsevier and University of Padova)

At the end of the old year journalists like to write articles summarising events, listing items, totalling numbers. At the beginning of the New Year writers and readers alike become more philosophical, resolving to extract information from mere data and wisdom from observations. Google Earth has been a phenomenal source of data for many years but now a group from the University of Padova have just reported how to use Google map data to quantify how and where Italian farmers are tending their vineyards.

With a few Open Source software tools, Alessia Cogato and her colleagues gained real insight into viticulture throughout Italy from satellite image data from Google Earth. The potential wisdom from the study is to establish: how many Italian vineyards could be mechanised to improve efficiency; where they are located; and what type of mechanisation should be employed.

According to an old English book on horticulture, pruning vines is rated difficult compared to other crops. There are various methods of cultivation, training vines either vertically (Free-cordon and Geneva Double Curtain) or horizontally (Pergola and Tendone). Vertical cultivations are typically much easier to mechanise therefore local viticulture tradition is an important parameter in improving efficiency.

Other effective parameters (which can be different from one vineyard and region to another) are: the spacings between rows; the amount of spare land at the end of a row to turn a tractor; and the slope of the vineyard. The Padova group devised a Level of Mechanisability index which takes account of all the parameters to assess the viability of improving the efficiency of vineyards by mechanisation.

So how did they glean the required information from Google Earth data?

QGIS Open Source software screenshot

Geography today is a sophisticated science, far from ‘advanced colouring in’ as some snooty physical science students used to refer to it. Displaying geographical data, mining the data and analysing the data is the work of a Geographic Information System (GIS). The team used QGIS to analyse image data from Google Earth. QGIS is an Open Source project available for Windows, Linux and Mac OS platforms. QGIS allows multiple layers of earth data from different sources to be displayed, correlated and analysed.

Italian vineyard parameterisation (shape headspace LxW ratio row spacing) and cultivation (inset) (courtesy Elsevier and University of Padova)

QGIS was also used to import and analyse terrain slope data from the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research of Italy (ISPRA).

Slope data for terrain in Italy derived from satellite images (courtesy Elsevier and University of Padova)

Combining all of the key parameters from the raw image data, Levels of Mechanisability were calculated for each of the 3686 vineyards in the Padova study.

With vineyards in southern Europe under pressure from climate change and a global pandemic, sustainable cultivation methods are more important than ever. Looking forward into the New Year, the Padova team will hope government agencies apply some wisdom derived from their information based on Google satellite data.

The data report published by Elsevier can be found here. A full report of the study can be found in the Journal Land.

Images from Elsevier and University of Padova used courtesy of the Creative Commons licence.