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Jackson Family Vineyard Manager Says Mechanization Imminent

January 2018
by Jaime Lewis

San Luis Obispo, Calif.—As the labor shortage continues and demand for high-quality wines rises, the need for mechanization in the vineyard is critical and inevitable, Bart Haycraft, vineyard manager for Jackson Family Wines, said recently at the Sustainable Ag Expo in San Luis Obispo. The event is hosted by the Vineyard Team.

“I think there’s a way to mechanize without compromising quality,” he said. “What you have to do is analyze your situation and see where you can improve and what makes sense. The other part of that is going out and finding the technology that will match the job that you need done.” Sometimes, he added, “You’re going to have to build it or find someone to build it for you.”

Haycraft, who has been with JFW for 15 years, manages 1,900 acres of vineyards between Los Alamos and the Sta. Rita Hills AVA. Throughout his career across Napa, Sonoma, Lodi, the California Delta and the Central Coast—and particularly since joining Jackson Family Wines (JFW)—he has witnessed changes in technological innovation, vineyard management and human resources that warrant a closer look at mechanizing processes in the field.

Referring to one of his first jobs after graduating from Cal State-Fresno in 1995, Haycraft said, “Back then, we were harvesting with the old upright harvesters, which were very slow at three-quarters of a mile per hour.” Soon thereafter, Gregoire pull-behind technology emerged, which worked well but the discharge machines were only usable once per year, at harvest, and still required two tractors as they were not self-propelled or self-contained.

Later, working on the Delta one morning, Haycraft saw something he’d never seen before: a large machine spraying eight to 10 vineyard rows at a time. “I thought, ‘That’s the wave of the future!” he remembered thinking.

“When you look at the way (the Jackson Family Wines) vineyards were set up way back in the mid-90s, with the idea of doing a lot of over-the-row, over-the-vine, high-density, highly efficient spraying, it’s pretty amazing,” he said. “You either have to design the machine around the vineyard, or the vineyard around the machine, or together.”

Haycraft’s comments echoed those of fellow Sustainable Ag Expo speaker Dr. Kaan Kurtural, assistant cooperative extension specialist at the University of California Cooperative Extension, Davis, who claimed the primary challenge to adopting mechanization in the vineyard is trellising. “The simplest trellises work best,” Kurtural said. 

Haycraft concurred, saying: “There are forces pushing us toward mechanization that aren’t just financially driven. We need to start taking advantage of improvements in technology, to maximize our evolutions through the vineyard—also, the ability to use our personnel at their highest possible skill level.

“The fact is we’re losing people and we need to mechanize to compensate for that,” he said.

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