Vineyard Manager Says Mechanization Imminent

Posted: Dec 03, 2017

Innovation maximizes efficiencies, assets and skills at Jackson Family Wines

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. “I don’t think there’s going to be a ton of people on the Central Coast converting to box pruning and doing some of the things that may make sense in other areas. 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 Jackson Family Wines 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. Two guys in rain suits were behind pulling out MOG so that the harvesters would keep running.” 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.

'Wave of the future'
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.

What he saw that morning turned out to be a machine designed by Matt Andros of Andros Engineering in Paso Robles. Years later, Haycraft would operate and oversee three of Andros’ machines at JFW in Los Alamos. Haycraft says JFW still uses the machines, built in the late-1990s, every day for a variety of functions including leafing and pre-pruning. By contrast, he says, “A lot of the new machines we have are no longer serviceable.”

Haycraft explained how the Andros vehicles, despite being 20 years old, have had the benefit of being adaptable over time to serve the wide variety of vineyard-specific needs. While the cost of entry on the Andros machines was prohibitive 20 years ago, Haycraft looks back on their purchase as a great investment, despite the fact that the computer technology used to operate them is no longer functional, and the scarcity of the machines means a lack of support or parts for upkeep.

“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. But you can’t have a vineyard set up for this kind of thing without knowing you’re going to be on 6-foot spacing, or not having your trellising right.”

Saving costs and better products
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. “The single high-wire works very well, if you can live with that, with a 2.5-inch drop every 1,000 feet, on a gentle slope. If you’re starting new, it’s a blank slate: I recommend setting up a single high wire or high quad. Those seem to be productive, good quality and easy to operate on.” (He added that VSP trellising can convert for mechanization, “but the catch wires seem to be problematic to move up and down.”)

Kurtural, who manages a research station for the University of California with an eye toward improving efficiencies, quality and alternative pest control methods in the vineyard, said that while mechanization has traditionally been sought to cut costs, it provides benefits beyond the bottom line. “As more and more winemakers work with it, they like this fruit a lot better because it’s coming in at the composition they want,” he said. “When we started the work 10 years ago, the main thing was saving costs, but we ended up making a better product in the field that the winemaker can rely on.”

Haycraft concurred, citing several benefits beyond cost-cutting to those with the means or openness to try new technologies, such as improved weeding capabilities and less dead time during harvest. “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 days of having people out on ATVs checking drip are over. You need them multitasking and doing as many different things in the vineyard as they can.”

“I don’t think we have a lot of people who understand where we are in this situation,” he continued, sharing demographics that show an aging and dwindling labor force. “They see a lot of immigration, but the fact is we’re losing people and we need to mechanize to compensate for that.”

By Jaime Lewis December 1, 2017 Source:  

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