Vine Lines: Robots In The Vineyard

Vine Lines: Robots In The Vineyard

Fifty years ago, vineyards were full of people at harvest time, picking grapes by hand. Large crews would work long days over many weeks to bring in a crop. Over time, fewer and fewer people wanted to pick grapes and it became difficult to find the needed labor.

The development of the mechanical grape harvester enabled farmers to overcome this problem by picking grapes faster and with less labor, reducing their harvest costs. Despite the large capital outlay required to purchase the equipment, mechanical grape harvesting has become the norm for juice and bulk wine growers, as well as for a growing number of premium winegrape growers, because of the labor savings.

Finding adequate labor to do important vineyard tasks each year continues to be a challenge for many growers. In recent years, there has been increased interest in equipment that can mechanize other vineyard tasks like leaf pulling, shoot and fruit thinning, and winter pruning.

Pruning

Next to harvest, dormant pruning is usually the largest labor cost for vineyards. As a result, it has been a task that many have targeted to mechanize. In most cases, mechanical pruning equipment is used to “pre-prune” vines, doing most of the work but still requiring some follow-up by hand afterwards to achieve the appropriate number of buds on each vine. While still requiring some hand labor, the finishing work requires less time and people to complete. In some cases, however, growers will simply run the machines through the vineyard with no follow-up, leaving higher bud numbers, and rely on other equipment or practices to balance the vines during the growing season. At this point, these systems are not really suited for cane-pruned vineyards.

Canopy Management

Canopy management techniques such as leaf pulling and shoot thinning have become more and more commonplace in Eastern vineyards, and some growers are beginning to look to mechanical means to do this work. Leaf-pulling equipment has been around for a little while, but newer systems claim to do a better job of removing leaves while causing low levels of damage to clusters. Equipment is also available now to reduce the number of shoots if extra buds were retained as a hedge against winter damage, by mechanical pruning, or extra shoots emerged from retained and blind buds. Removing these shoots increases air circulation and sunlight exposure in the fruiting zone, which improves bud fruitfulness and fruit quality, and also reduces
disease pressure.

Several different types of mechanisms have also been developed to mechanically remove fruit from overcropped vines. The difficulty with these machines is calibrating them to remove just the desired amount of fruit. Information on berry growth in Concords developed in western New York allows growers of that variety to thin their crop using a mechanical harvester, which many growers already own. Work is now underway to adapt this technique to other varieties as well.

Equipment is available for other vineyard tasks such as suckering and moving wires during shoot positioning, but are not currently used in the East.

What’s The Downside?

There are certainly challenges to incorporating mechanization into a vineyard operation. The first one is the capital outlay required to purchase the equipment. Each piece described above can cost tens of thousands of dollars, which is a significant investment even if there is a known payback over time. Another issue is that it can take several years to learn how to get the equipment to work for a particular vineyard. Learning to use a new piece of equipment can be frustrating and perhaps even have some perceived or real impacts on fruit quality during that time. Another major hurdle that still exists is the perception that many people have that increased mechanization leads to lower fruit quality. I believe this perception will change over time with technological advances in the equipment and as growers gain more experience with the technology.

So What’s Next?

Technological advances will continue to influence agriculture, and grape growing will be no exception. Scientists are currently working on technologies that could further increase operating efficiency. We may soon see a tractor and sprayer that would use GPS to steer itself through the vineyard and apply different materials to different parts of a vineyard, depending on pest pressure. Or a harvester that can measure yield, Brix, acidity, color, and other fruit parameters on the fly, and sort the fruit automatically. There has even been an early demonstration of a robotic pruner that can digitally analyze a vine and make cuts based on how the grower wants it pruned.

Robots in the vineyard? Not quite yet, but…

Leave a Reply

Featured Stories

All Vegetables Stories >All Fruits Stories >All Nuts Stories >All Citrus Stories >

The Latest

BerriesReal Estate Firm, Wish Farms Strike Large Land Deal
October 1, 2014
$13.8 million transaction includes more than 800 acres acquired from longtime Central Florida produce operation. Read More
VegetablesFind The Right Market For Your Crops
October 1, 2014
Getting to know the demographics of your market is key to maximizing your return on investment. Read More
Insect ControlBagrada Bug And Brown Marmorated Stink Bug Posing Threa…
October 1, 2014
Two species of stink bugs are now posing a serious threat to agricultural production in the Western U.S.: the brown Read More
OrganicResearchers Breeding Organic Tomato Varieties Receive $…
October 1, 2014
Purdue University accepts funding to lead multi-institution research to breed organic varieties that will resist foliar diseases. Read More
Vegetables14 Quality Cabbage Varieties [Slideshow]
October 1, 2014
Browse the slideshow below for information on cabbage varieties from the nation’s leading seed breeders and distributors. Read More
FruitsOrganic And Local Food Economies Receive More Than $52 …
October 1, 2014
Most of the grants were authorized through the 2014 Farm Bill. Read More
Insect ControlMore Than 600,000 Acres Removed From Golden Nematode Re…
October 1, 2014
The potato acreage was taken off the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s list; under 6,000 acres in New York are still considered to be infested. Read More
Crop ProtectionTool Helps Track Insects On The Move At Night
October 1, 2014
Signals collected by the National Weather Service’s Doppler radar network may serve as an early warning system to track corn earworm, a major pest in sweet corn. Read More
NutsNew Walnut Budding, Grafting, and Planting Video Releas…
October 1, 2014
Lake County nurseryman Alex Suchan, who has been grafting trees for two-thirds of a century, is the star. Read More
GenNext GrowersGrowers Need To Be Mindful When Dealing With The Media
October 1, 2014
When being interviewed for a story, preparation is the foundation to help you successfully get your point across. Read More
Citrus Achievement AwardSharing Is Caring When It Comes To Curing Citrus Greeni…
October 1, 2014
Mike Sparks, 2014 Citrus Achievement Award winner, says being open with peers about what's working and not working is crucial in managing HLB. Read More
Florida Ag ExpoKnow How To Knock Back Nematodes
October 1, 2014
The 2014 Florida Ag Expo will provide critical tips in soilborne pest management. Read More
CEU SeriesCEU Series: Vow To Vanquish Weeds Among Vegetables
October 1, 2014
Herbicidal neglect can and will kill your crops. Read More
Insect & Disease UpdateUF Names Interim Director For Citrus Research And Educa…
September 30, 2014
Michael Rogers has been a central figure in Florida’s battle to survive greening. Read More
BerriesPractice Persistence When Battling Botrytis In Blueberr…
September 30, 2014
Cognizance of resistance is key to managing formidable fungus. Read More
CitrusFarming Is Quite The Scary Prospect For Some [Opinion]
September 30, 2014
Florida Grower managing editor Paul Rusnak says economic realities might frighten off future leaders from noble professions. Read More
FruitsNew Suppress Herbicide Gets Green Light From EPA
September 30, 2014
Approval gives organic growers new weed management tool. Read More
BerriesNew Fill-By-Weight Clamshell Filler For Blueberries
September 30, 2014
Lakewood Process Machinery's equipment offers a simplified user interface, minimized drop heights, a new dribble-gate system designed for an increased level of accuracy. Read More