Winegrape mechanization in California is continuing to expand as the availability and costs of labor become more challenging. Harvesting was the first area to become heavily mechanized. However, growers are increasingly adopting other mechanization equipment as well. UC Davis researchers have also produced a new set of guidelines to assist producers to use mechanization tools more efficiently.
“Essentially all the winegrapes are mechanically picked in California. But due to the novel coronavirus and then other problems that we’ve been having with a reliable labor supply we’re seeing a very rapid shift into mechanical pruning,” said Kaan Kurtural, Cooperative Extension specialist with the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. “We were thinking this would take at least a decade in California to take hold, but the shift has been immense starting around 2016.”
More than a decade of research has been conducted on winegrape mechanization. However, Kurtural said there was still a need for growers to better understand how to maximize the value of mechanization. The paper, ‘Mechanization of Pruning, Canopy Management, and Harvest in Winegrape Vineyards,’ provides a summary framework that growers can follow. “We go through how to plant a vineyard for complete mechanization. We go through the season with dormant pruning, trunk suckering, shoot removal, leaf removal, and then finally finishing up with harvest,” Kurtural noted.
Advancements in mechanization tools have allowed for increased benefits for producers in a number of ways. Mechanical harvesting can reduce the cost of labor by close to half. Mechanical pruning also eliminates the need for labor by as much as 80 percent. Further research is also indicating that mechanization provides added benefits that go beyond the reduced labor requirements.
“Initially, we were wanting to provide a guideline on how to save on labor costs. But our work indicated that we have much better quality with these machines as well,” Kurtural explained. “This also provides a guideline and provides some economic numbers on how best to make use of these machines in viticulture.”