January 2011 Issue of Wines & Vines

Mechanization of Vineyards

Manual labor's difficulties push growers to mechanized work

by Peter Mitham
mechanized vineyard
Factors beyond simple economics are pushing growers to mechanize pruning and leaf pulling.
Bountiful vineyards may be emblems of peace and prosperity, but the in-your-face business of caring for the vines is costly to growers and not without risk to workers.

The cost of labor is the single biggest expense winegrape growers face each year, while laborers themselves risk repetitive strain injuries and other dangers in the course of removing leaves, thinning shoots and pruning. It’s a key reason why mechanization of these basic tasks is gaining favor, even with small growers who might not previously have considered investing in machines designed for jobs such as pruning, for which leaving a specific number of shoots for the next season requires personal attention to individual vines.

Dan Kraemer, a grower near Mount Angel, Ore., says cutting costs was a key reason he first considered mechanizing, but the nature of the work was a close second. While he hesitates to estimate savings—he says it’s between $150 and $300 per acre, depending on the vineyard—he has no doubts as to the rationale for mechanizing when it comes to working conditions.

“It’s a mind-numbingly dumb job,” he said. “I would be hard-pressed to tell you what we’re saving. But it’s more than that; the work is just no fun.”

Kraemer prunes his 550-acre VSP-trained vineyard using a system developed in Marlborough, New Zealand, by Walter Langlois of Machinery Services Ltd. Kraemer was the first in North America to use the system (originally designed for cane-pruned vineyards), which he says takes “most of the work” out of pruning. The distinctive feature is a pair of tires that rotate counter to each other as they move along the row (photo on page 64), compressing tendrils and lifting them up from where they’re attached to the trellis. A blade then cuts them, and they drop free from the wire. The cut portions are chipped and deposited between the vine rows to serve as mulch.

No pulling canes by hand
“It’s a very simple concept, but it works amazingly well,” says Gregg Marrs, owner of Blueline Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Moxee, Wash., master distributor for the machines in North America. “It eliminates the crew that used to have to be sent through the field to pull those canes even after the pruning cut was made. Either that crew would have to spend time pulling the canes out of the wires, or they would send other crews,” he said.

It also eliminates the risk of canes snapping back during pruning and gouging out an eye or causing similar injury. “It’s far less physical. You’re eliminating a pretty physical operation—jerking those canes out—as well as potential eye injury. That’s a big deal,” Marrs said.

It’s a similar story with other pre-pruning systems. Joe Pillitteri, owner of Lakeview Vineyard Equipment Inc. in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, says the Primex pre-pruners from France’s Gregoire Group cut pruning times by 20% to 60%. Unlike vineyard workers, the mechanized pruner never gets tired or injured. By trimming the top foot or two of growth off dormant vines, it makes it easier for workers to enter the canopy and ensure bud counts are optimal (if necessary).

“It prevents anyone who’s cleaning up behind it from having to pull a lot of the large canes with tendrils on them from the canopy,” Pillitteri says. “When you pull them out, they’ll also sometimes break loose and whip the guy in the face, so it’s a workplace safety thing as well. We’ve got all this nasty work done by a machine that doesn’t really seem to care how many acres you do, it just keeps working.”

Pillitteri cites one grower who claims to save 1.75 hours per 700-foot row. The grower has 1,000 rows, so the investment of at least CAD$18,000 for one of the machines is worthwhile.

“When you multiply that by $15-$30 an hour, most people on 100 acres say it takes less than a year to pay for itself,” Pillitteri says.


    Hedging bets on currency 

    “Buy American” is making increasing sense as equipment distributors and growers grapple with shifting exchange rates in cost-conscious economic times.

    Gregg Marrs of Blueline Manufacturing Co. Inc. in Moxee, Wash., said vineyard equipment from Europe is costing more as a result of exchange rates, creating opportunities for domestic manufacturers to develop their own products. A glance at his own balance sheet underscores the pressure on buyers. “Our margins are much thinner than they used to be,” he said. “We work very hard to follow the exchange rate, and I buy forwards of currency when I see that the rate’s beneficial. I put a lot of effort into that.”

    While this allows Blueline to give customers better deals, dealers who don’t pay attention to exchange rates face challenges.

    “With the past couple of years, and the pretty drastic fluctuation that we’ve seen with the dollar against the euro, it’s become more of an issue,” Gary Chappell, international manager for Bouchard Cooperages in Napa told Wines & Vines last spring. During the past 18 months, the euro has been worth anywhere from $1.51 to less than $1.20. The trading range has meant varying degrees of buying power for companies, complicating decisions of whether or not to buy.

Gregoire and Pellenc
Lakeview also carries the Disco and Visio systems from France’s Groupe Pellenc, but these are more sophisticated. While the Gregoire pre-pruner has to be manually adjusted when it encounters a steel post, the Pellenc offers the option of a sensor that automatically avoids obstacles for a 50% premium. When growers factor in exchange rates, most are happy to press a button.

After all, pressure to reduce input costs during the past three years has been a driving force behind the shift to mechanize even basic vineyard chores.

“Growers have been saying, ‘All my input costs are going up, I really need to find some balance,’” Pillitteri says. “The need that’s in front of you today is always more pressing than the one that didn’t exist last year. Now that this technology is really taking off, they’re reporting back and saying, ‘I don’t know what I did without one of these before’—especially if they did the pruning themselves.”

It’s a similar story for leaf removers, which have a similar price range to pre-pruners but a slightly longer payback time—between 18 months and two years for a 50-acre vineyard.

Two main systems are available: one that relies on forced air and another that draws leaves out from the canopy for cutting. The models from Gregoire and Pellenc both employ a vacuum mechanism, Other models, from Clemens Vineyard Equipment Inc. and Nairn Harvesters Ltd., use compressed air.

Manager uses five machines
Bill den Hoed of Vigneron Management LLC in Grandview, Wash., has five machines that include both types—two forced air systems from Nairn, two that Blueline manufactures and a vacuum system that Blueline markets as Accucut. Den Hoed says each machine is useful during different seasons.

Compressed air leaf removers are ideal for heavier thinning early in the season, from berry set until the berries are pea-sized, he explains. But for late-season leaf thinning, the vacuum-style leaf removers provide a precise cut that doesn’t damage the ripening berries.

“I can’t use forced air that late in the season, so we’ve got one Accucut,” he says. “It covers 700-plus acres a year, and the wonderful thing about that is you can run it 24 hours a day; where if you have a forced air unit, usually you’re (running it) in the evening hours, going through the night because you need the leaf material…really crisp.”

The second pass to pull leaves is typically intended to boost grape exposure on the side of the row facing the afternoon sun, and to facilitate air circulation so that white grapes are not under undue disease pressure. Accucut is precise enough to remove single layers of leaves, den Hoed said, and it will automatically scale to the width of the vine row.

“It’s not as dramatic or as drastic as the forced-air remover, but it does open it up,” he says. “You get the sunlight, you get the warmth, and you also open it up for air flow.”

Price differences are an equally important consideration. Marrs launched his own line of leaf removers, including Accucut, because of shifting exchange rates that have been largely unfavorable to U.S. importers. Marrs said that with his own manufacturing, marketing and distribution network, Blueline has been able to come in at a lower price than many imports. His basic system sells for approximately $26,900, while Accucut is just $2,000 more at approximately $28,900.

Marrs said that Gregoire began offering its DX-series of leaf removers three years ago, when it bought the manufacturer. But volatile exchange rates have made it difficult to enter western U.S. markets, Marrs said.

Our Northwest correspondent Peter Mitham is a freelance agriculture writer based in Vancouver, B.C. Look for his weekly dispatches at winesandvines.com Headlines.

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