More mechanization coming to vineyards

As labor becomes increasingly scarce, growers keep looking for new ways to mechanize vineyard operations. Mechanical grape harvesters are widely used, and now growers and vineyard managers are evaluating other mechanized practices.

Pruning and shoot positioning are the next step, according to Dana Merrill, president of Mesa Vineyard Management, Templeton, Calif.

“Increased mechanization is on the cusp of being competitive with hand labor — probably about at the stage where mechanical harvesting was around 1973.

Don Dressler, independent farm labor consultant at Irvine, Calif., agrees that “labor is tight,and only going to get tighter. From what we’re hearing, border crossings are down about a third. Mechanization in all of agriculture is going to be critical going forward, regardless what the politicians come up with.”

Merrill is pruning and shoot positioning with machines on 300 acres this year. One of the issues growers face is getting wineries and winemakers to support mechanization, he says. Another issue is simply field logistics.

“Most of the mechanization in this area is pre-pruning and mechanical harvest,” says Nick Frey, president of Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, Santa Rosa, Calif. “There is also mechanical leaf removal. But mechanization is more difficult with smaller vineyards like we have in Sonoma County.”

About 53 percent of farm workers are undocumented, according to Howard Rosenberg, with UC Davis. That has everyone’s attention, including Homeland Security.

“I think it’s important for employers to get their ducks in a row,” Dressler says. “The court backed away from the ‘no match’ letters a little bit, but this issue is not going to disappear. Enforcement is only going to get tougher.”

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