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.
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.
This increased efficiency has spread faster elsewhere because easy access to cheap, controllable stoop labor allowed our farmers to take the easier route and continue doing things the old-fashioned way:
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.
It’s true the machines in this story are imported from France (made by Pellenc), but which is more likely to place a long-term burden on our society — the importation of Latin American peasants or French machines?