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Labor Shortage Accelerates Mechanization In California Vineyards

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California vineyard.

As with other economic sectors, there is a growing trend toward mechanization in the California wine industry.

A number of factors are driving this shift to machines. They are faster, more efficient, and deliver a more consistent product than people can.

Studies show that machines can reduce labor costs by as much as 50%. However, according to UC Davis researcher Kaan Kurtural, much of the motivation to move toward mechanization comes from a shortage of seasonal labor due to federal immigration policies.

Vineyards are also geographically isolated and often situated in areas that are too expensive for workers to live in. Competition for labor from other industries is also a problem.

“When we started the mechanization work fifteen years ago they used to tell us ‘you’re going against the current, we’re so big we’re never going to run out of workers, there’s a steady stream of them coming across the border,’” Kurtural said. “Even if there were a steady supply of workers coming in. there’s better demand, better pay, from other industries such as construction or trades.”

Another consideration that favors technology is the increasing size of California vineyards which, given the time constraints of grape production, can’t be practically managed with manual labor alone.

“There’s a lot of consolidation now in the business, vineyard sizes have increased tremendously, in California we’re looking at 160 -170 acre mean vineyard size,” Kurtural said. “ So, there are no crews large enough to do these tasks.”

California growers have used mechanized systems in their vineyards for more than a decade for pruning and harvesting, Kurtural said, and about 90% of grapes in the U.S. are harvested mechanically. But a new generation of machines engineered by the University of Arkansas has greatly extended and refined their capabilities.

Kurtural has created a demonstration vineyard at the 40-acre UC Davis Oakville Station in the Napa Valley to showcase these capabilities and teach growers how to best utilize the latest technology to offset the labor shortage.

Kurtural and co-author Matthew Fidelibus recently published a review of current best practices in the journal Catalyst. In the review, he states that while mechanization in vineyards reduces the need for seasonal labor to perform more labor-intensive jobs, it will not entirely replace people.

There is still a need for highly skilled and experienced workers who can make the kind of on-the-spot decisions that machines can’t.