Automated Harvesting Grapes Is Only Part of The Cost Savings Story From The Vineyard

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Another new vintage year for wine is here and most wineries in California are having positive thoughts for a good season. And again, this year vineyard managers and wineries have started waving the red flag in front of the wine drinkers of America about scarcity of labor. To some this is a precursor to the message that wine prices are going to be increasing; at least for California wines. I suppose anything related to labor shortage or immigration is code talk to impending price increases.

It is reported that many workers from South of the boarder are opting for other opportunities not related to agriculture and the wine business in California. On the surface, most imbibers of wine assume simple supply and demand of labor drive cost to some degree, which accounts for approximately 30% of the cost of wine. But, on more careful analysis there are other components relating to the hourly cost of labor-it is called legislation. Finding people willing to work in California agriculture businesses is only part of the issue.

In Spreckels, CA, a town with a permanent population of approximately 750, County Supervisors approved housing construction to accommodate 800 seasonal workers. The plan was proposed by Tanimura and Antle, a large agricultural company that needs seasonal workers for their agriculture business. But, housing costs became prohibitive for their seasonal employees. The company built 100 dormitory style, two bedroom apartments, on their property for the seasonal workers. The city would then have to handle the ancillary costs of these residents-transportation, recreation, infrastructure, healthcare, security, etc.

The point being, shortage of agriculture labor has distinct cost beyond the hourly wages. Obviously, the consumer must pay all related labor costs whether they be in taxes, wages, or private industry; anything that adds to cost is ultimately passed on to the consumer. So maybe the cost of labor in the wine business is fostering creative uses of technology/mechanization in the vineyard. As an aside, two years ago the wine industry in the central coast of California claimed that it cost approximately $22,000 per acre to plant and sustain new vines in the first year alone. Put simply, an 11-acre vineyard will cost approximately $250,000 per year just to get to the first year of production-hopefully in year three. That is expensive.

Bottom-line, vines are labor intense, especially if you want to maximize quality and quantity of fruit production. Each vine must be attended to constantly. Depending on the type of grape and the preferences of the vineyard manager, width between rows and how close the vines are planted within each row, the number of vines per acre can vary. Vines per acre can range from 1,376 to 2,756. And it isn’t just the vines that require attention. The trellises require maintenance also; such as raising and lowering the wires. All activities dictate labor of some sort. So, is there an emerging solution to labor availability and at increased cost?

Many wineries and vineyard owners are turning to mechanization to ameliorate the cost of maintaining vines and harvesting grapes. The French vineyards have probably led this evolution in farming by a company named Pellenc, which manufactures pieces of equipment that can do almost everything in the vineyard that is labor intense; all phases of work in the vineyard. “We have done testing on the cost of mechanized vineyard management relative to cost savings versus identical tasks being performed manually; the results are positive for us, the vineyard owner and hopefully the consumer,” says John Felice of Pellenc U.S. “What is even more impressive for our customers is that there is no diminution in wine quality relative to mechanized pruning and harvesting versus manual pre-pruning and harvesting of the fruit.” Depending on legacy winery/vineyard practices, mechanized vineyard management might even improve quality.

Technically, winemaking is an agricultural endeavor; as soon as one task is completed another one starts, it is a never-ending cycle. Then there are some processes that keep going throughout the year, like spraying and maintaining the vineyard floor; such weed control. Until 2000, these were task that had to be performed manually. Now automation can replace the manual work in the vineyard. Mechanization can perform some impressive precision tasks in the vineyard, such as:

· The process of keeping the vineyard healthy and productive starts after the leaves fall off the vines. That is when pre-pruning goes through the vineyard, which leaves about 12″ of cane on the cordon.

o Pre-pruning helps prevent the spread of disease.

o Keeping between vines and rows clear of debris will also aid in pest control.

o There are some schools of thought that pre-pruning will also make the final pruning process quicker.

· “If a vineyard owner really wants to save on labor expenses they could use one of our high-end self-contained multipurpose machines that will pre-prune, cut cordon to prescribed number of buds, pull old canes out of the wires, mulch canes and clean up vineyard floors and even adjust wires to new heights,” says Felice. Some people want two or three buds left and that task can be done automatically. With automated precision pruning equipment, an infra-red sensor will track the cordon and cut canes to a determined height from the cordon leaving the prescribed/desired number of buds remaining. This process also includes mulching last year’s cane, then the debris drops to the floor and is incorporated back into the soil.

“If a vineyard manager really wants the esthetics of precision, they will use two person crews to walk behind the pruner to fully clean up any vines,” says Felice. “Actually, next year’s crop can be analyzed from the buds that we developed through the growing season to determine the potential for next year’s crop load. Mother Nature will continue to have a say in what happens throughout the winter and spring that impacts next year’s crop.”

· Throughout the growing season there are some requirements for spray application in a vineyard, even in an organic vineyard.

· Vineyard floor management is a never-ending process and is very labor intense and can be done with automation even during a spraying operation which also saves on labor.

In one mechanized demonstration over a 3-day period, in an actual vineyard, the test pitted a 20-person crew doing pruning versus a mechanical precision pruner. The tasks were to prune and pull cane out of the trellises wire. The manual operation could accomplish the tasks at a rate of 32 vines/hour/day. The mechanized operation performed the same tasks and pruned 90 vines/hour/day. The quality of the work was reported to be comparable to hand labor.

It would be a leap to far to simply say mechanized vineyard tasks are approximately three times faster than manual vineyard operations. However, we know that manual labor is one of the elements of production that cannot be sped up by paying more per hour. We do know that traditionally, automation is constantly being improved relative to quality and performance-i.e. self-driving cars. There are simply some things that machines and automation can and will do better. Robots have proven that to be a case in point.

If a vineyard owner, does not have to pay for healthcare, housing, recruiting and ancillary labor costs totaling approximately $4,000 per month per employee on a 20-person crew (representing $80,000 per month), it doesn’t take long to realize the magnitude of the savings with automation.

Automated grape harvesting has been the most recognized application for several years. Harvesting is another area where labor cost is critical and available labor has been a challenge for vineyards. The harvesting of grapes is the most critical issue at the winery; they are interested in how gently the fruit is picked and quantity of debris when the fruit gets to the crush. Here again the automated harvesting process is proving to deliver quality fruit to the winery and quickly.

Maybe vineyard automation will keep the labor cost component of wine making under control for a while longer and not impact quality.


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