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Machines replacing men in the vineyard


In the dark of night, the Pellenc machine rolled like a giant Transformer-like insect through the vineyard, seemingly swallowing up vines as it gently shook the chardonnay grapes free.

The canopies trembled almost imperceptibly as the mechanical harvester approached at a little more than 2 miles per hour, its lights gleaming like beady eyes staring down the vineyard rows.

As it passed, the valuable fruit fell softly from the vine and was ferried to a mechanical sorter, leaving behind only the empty stems and gently brushed leaves that quivered in the midnight air.

It's a scene that's becoming increasingly common in Sonoma County, as wineries and vineyard managers look for more cost-effective ways to harvest their grapes, and the number of available seasonal farm workers decreases.

In Sonoma and Napa counties, the percentage of vineyards harvested by machine has been growing by 3 to 4 percent every year, said Pete Opatz, vice president and senior viticulturist of Silverado Premium Properties. His company, which farms 3,500 acres in the two counties, harvests about 45 percent of its crop with machines.

"The trend towards mechanization has been a long-standing trend that continues to grow really over the last 10 years," Opatz said. "Will the labor shortfall push the line more vertical? Of course it will."

Meanwhile, grape growers are saying there's a shortage of seasonal workers available to help with the harvest this year, a trend caused in part by the faltering U.S. economy and tighter restrictions on the border with Mexico.

"As that labor pool becomes more and more difficult to tap into for agriculture, or any work...I see more and more mechanization of our industry as time goes on," said Don Wallace, president of Dry Creek Vineyard outside Healdsburg.

The Australian wine industry has long had a smaller labor pool than it needed during harvest, and as a result, mechanical harvesting is far more common there, Wallace said.

In California, many farm workers hail from Mexico and return there after harvest, but stricter immigration policies are making that journey more difficult, said Casimiro Alvarez, regional director with the United Farm Workers.

"It is hard for people to come back to continue working in the fields," Alvarez said.

Many vineyard managers need about twice as many workers during harvest as they do throughout the rest of the year, meaning harvesters must find other sources of income throughout the year.

"So, what are those workers going to be doing in the non-harvest period?" asked Chris Paige, CEO of California Human Development, which provides training and services to farm workers. "Typically they would be in some kind of non-agriculture job, possibly hospitality or construction. So to the extent that those are down, those workers wouldn't be available during the harvest."

The Healdsburg Day Labor Center, part of California Human Development, was receiving calls from vineyard managers requesting help with harvest this weekend, Paige said.

At the Graton Day Labor Center, coordinators used to call vineyard managers to say they had people available to work. But now they don't have to, because the vineyard managers call them, said coordinator Carlos Lopez. "It's a different game now," Lopez said.

Some seasonal laborers have left because of anti-immigration sentiment, and because wineries are becoming more careful about checking identification of pickers, Lopez said.

The lean crop also is making vineyard work less attractive this year for pickers who are paid by the ton, said Jim Murphy, owner of Murphy Vineyards in the Alexander Valley.

"It's difficult to get a hand crew to get motivated to go out there and pick where they're not going to make a whole lot," Murphy said.

During a plush harvest, pickers could make a couple hundred dollars for a long night of work. But when the crop is thin, the pickers could earn as little as $50 for grueling efforts, he said.

In Lake County, grower Greg Hanson of Hanson Ranch Vineyards was expecting two-dozen pickers for a recent harvest, but at the scheduled time only eight workers showed up. As a result, the crew's harvest fell short of the truckload they had promised to deliver to Geyser Peak Winery that day.

"There's no doubt in my mind the available labor force is just smaller," said Glenn Alexander, owner of Bacchus Vineyard Management, which manages 600 acres of vineyards mostly in Sonoma County.

Alexander said he felt the crunch during the late spring and early summer, when unseasonable rains meant there was more work to do arranging and managing the canopies. "We had 108 people working in June and July, and it wasn't enough, and we couldn't find anybody."

Even so, Alexander is sticking to hand picking.

"I'm still one of those people that believes in putting your hands on the grapes," he said.

For cost efficiency, the numbers are on the side of mechanization. Opatz calculated that it costs about $300 per ton to hand-pick a 5 ton chardonnay crop, when considering the costs of payroll, workers' compensation and social security. Picking the same amount mechanically costs about $150 per ton, even taking into account the cost of the machinery, which can run around $400,000 for a top-quality machine.

Walsh Vineyards Management has been machine harvesting for a decade, and recently invested in more machine harvesters made by Pellenc because the quality of the finished product improved significantly, said Towle Merritt, viticulturist with the Napa company.

"In a situation like this, where we're facing a pretty significant weather event in the middle of next week...you can harvest more grapes in a shorter period of time," Merritt said. "Sometimes harvesting them at the right time is more important than harvesting them by hand."

Walsh used a Pellenc harvester to pick chardonnay grapes in the Carneros region early Friday. Sales of the French machines have been steadily increasing over the past few years, said Lance Vande Hoef, sales representative. He attributes that growth to the company's new technology, which separates berries from stems in the vineyard right after it's picked.

Vineyards must be designed for machine harvesting, generally with rows spaced six or more feet apart. Some machines don't work well on hillsides, but do work on flat lands, said Ondine Chattan, director of winemaking at Geyser Peak Winery. The Geyserville winery started replanting vines to be machine-friendly about 20 years ago, under the direction of an Australian winemaker.

"The machines that are used these days are so incredibly gentle it's amazing. They don't break or macerate the berries," Chattan said. "Australia has always had a labor shortage, so they've always been into mechanization."

As the appetite for mechanical harvesting in California continues, the end result may be even fewer seasonal workers.

"Some of the wineries, they don't hire them anymore, because they have machines," Lopez said. "So they need to find another job, or move out of the state."