Heading Toward the 'No-Touch' Vineyard

Growers discuss the current trends in mechanization and its future

by Andrew Adams
wine vineyard mechanization drone
New technology is making increased vineyard mechanization possible.
Sacramento, Calif.—In a decade or less, a vineyard owner or manager could “farm” from a monitor, smartphone or tablet.

Unmanned aerial drones, self-driving tractors with robotic implements and elaborate real-time monitoring systems could eliminate the need for human labor and realize the concept of the “no-touch” vineyard.

While it’s debatable when such a future will become reality, as agricultural labor continues to grow more scarce and more expensive it’s undoubtable that more and more vineyard operations will be mechanized and/or automated.

A panel of growers discussed their work on mechanizing vineyard operations during a session at this year’s Unified Wine & Grape Symposium, and all agreed there’s a need for more mechanization but stressed it isn’t yet a one-size-fits-all solution that can easily be brought to just any vineyard.

“I truly do feel that what we talk about here today, we’re moving in the right direction. We will absolutely have a no-touch vineyard in five or 10 years, I truly believe it,” said Aaron Lange, vice president of vineyard operations for LangeTwins Family Winery and Vineyards, which owns more than 7,000 acres of vineyards in area and around Lodi, Calif.

A shrinking, aging labor pool

Lange said 90% of all farm labor in California is from Mexico, but only about 2% of those workers are newcomers; the work force is aging, he said, with the average worker now age 38. He said immigration has continued to decline in recent years, and in fact there is now a net negative immigration back to Mexico. “Especially with the recent announcements we have in the news at the federal level, this is a is a very big issue for us as far as the supply of labor in agricultural fields among other industries, and so I urge you to really get involved politically,” he said. “If you don’t belong to an association that advocates on behalf of your interest, you absolutely need to get involved in one.”

Just as the number of available workers continues to shrink, the cost of labor is poised to increase. California is raising the minimum wage, and agricultural workers also will soon be eligible for more overtime pay.

Labor already accounts for 50% of Lange’s farming costs, and he said he expects that to increase. “You can imagine we’re going to have to either reduce those labor inputs or ask our wineries to pay us a hell of a lot more in order for us to survive with sustainable economics in our vineyard practices,” he said.

Lange offered the session audience a detailed look at some of the steps LangeTwins has taken to reduce labor costs and mechanize more operations. Most of the vineyards have been changed to 65-inch-high bi-lateral cordon to accommodate mechanized harvesting and pruning.

To provide a specific example, Lange said a new vineyard with 65-inch bilateral-cordon, with 10-gauge wire, drip wire and stake at every vine cost about $11,000 per acre to develop. “Our total cost to develop that vineyard is not cheap, and I don’t think we’d be able to do it again for this cost where labor supply is going and what wages we’re having to pay in the Lodi area,” he said.

Suckering taller vines remains a challenge because such work needs to take place during the spring, when there’s competition from other crops. Lange said “tall vines” could be a solution to this as they essentially have 35 inches of rootstock that was de-budded in the nursery. “That makes a lot of sense to us that we’re not having suckers pushing all over the place,” he said.

Lange said he still needs to see how these vines perform over the long term, but he’s encouraged by what he’s seen so far.

While there have been major advancements in mechanical harvesting and on-board sorting, Lange noted such harvesters do work well in a vertically shoot positioned vineyard, with meticulously leaf-pulled vines and picking at a rate of 5 tons per hour.

“In Lodi we need these machines to handle 6 tons to the acre to 12 tons to the acre, and we need to keep our speed up,” he said. “I have not seen one of these units really do an effective job at removing all that MOG while keeping the ground speed up and handling that type of volume.”

He said his team is currently working on modifying some existing machines to get quality at higher speeds with the added goal of reducing harvester teams from five workers to three workers.

Taking an integrated approach
Dr. Nick Dokoozlian, vice president of viticulture, chemistry and enology at E. & J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, Calif., discussed not just efforts to mechanize vineyard operations but the company’s trials to analyze how it affects grape and wine quality.

Dokoozlian said mechanization offers a tremendous opportunity, but from his perspective as a plant physiologist it should be expanded with a systems-based approach. “I don’t think we’ve ever sat down and taken an integrated systems approach to how we mechanize a vineyard,” he said. “We’ve generally taken existing trellising systems, existing training systems and built a machine to fit those as opposed to starting from scratch and asking ourselves how would we really design a vineyard for full mechanization.”

The area where Dokoozlian saw the most opportunity for the expanded use of mechanization is pruning, but he said there are challenges. “One of the problems with mechanical pruning in California in particular is that it was really initiated in warm regions in low-return vineyards,” he said, elaborating that those early trials involved “vineyards that already had economic distress or disease, pest problems something that made them not desirable to farm in the traditional manner.”

He said the returns were so low, growers just went in and switched over to the box hedge method to further reduce costs. The result was lots of dead wood, matted fruit and leaves and poor fruit exposure that resulted in a decline in quality. Dokoozlian said it was a more a matter of the approach failing rather than the method.

Viewing the change to mechanical pruning from a more integrated perspective resulted in switching to a high-wire system of 66-inch to 68-inch-high cordons with a single wire. Hand pruning for the first three years resulted in the best spur positions for mechanical pruning in the fourth or fifth year. “I don’t want to leave you with the idea you just put up a box hedge and you prune it with a machine and then you farm it just the way you do everything else because nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

Mechanically pruned canopies can have three to five times more buds pushing shorter shoots with smaller leaves. The vines will achieve a full canopy sooner in the year, meaning it will be relatively older throughout the rest of the growing season and that will require adjustments to when the vines are watered and fertilized.

Dokoozlian said he envisions pruning, harvesting and other mechanical operations will only improve as the technology improves. Better sensors, robotics and automated machines will reduce costs and labor needs but also improve wine and grape quality.

“A systems approach is going to be essential. That’s our next big thing is really integrating design, plant materials, training systems—all this stuff to think about what we want to mechanize and really develop that with the idea of mechanization instead of bringing the machine in after we’ve done everything and expecting the machine to work,” he said. “That’s a huge opportunity for us both in research and commercialization.” 

Posted on 02.08.2017 - 12:05:59 PST
Agricultural workers have had overtime pay previously after 60 hours a week. The new overtime law reduces it to any time over 40 hours a week. A shortage of workers has resulted from the increased border control which has raised costs for crossing the border to roughly $5k per person, according to the UFW, which was responsible for lobbying for the 40 hour overtime law.
Pam Strayer
Oakland, CA USA

Posted on 02.08.2017 - 23:44:19 PST
This all makes perfect sense from a financial point of view, particularly if your wine sells at a fairly low price point, but it's a much harder proposition from a marketing point of view. In fact it's the exact opposite of what some producers here in Champagne are doing. Yesterday I read about one champagne maker (and he's certainly not the only one) who states that "wherever possible we prefer to do things by hand because it's in keeping with our traditions and it's more authentic". It's debatable whether or not this affects the quality of the wine - positively or negatively - but I think it's a more appealing concept for the consumer, especially more more expensive wines, than wines made by machine.
Jiles Halling

Posted on 02.08.2017 - 23:50:49 PST
Excellent article. A lot to think about indeed, as design a vineyard for mechanisation and somehow not the other way around
Prof Alain Deloire