Amid labor shortage, California vineyards look to robots for harvesting

Updated: Jun. 8, 2021 at 12:37 PM EDT
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KMOV) - California grape growers face a shortage of workers to harvest the fruit.

Researchers at the University of California-Davis think they might have a solution: robots.

California’s wine industry is threatened by pests, drought and wildfires, but now a lack of labor is creating another worry for farmers.

“It’s a real challenge,” said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

Fewer workers are available at a time when vineyards are growing larger.

“Our estimate is, like, we have two-thirds less people working in, you know, wine grapes now,” said Kaan Kurtural, professor at UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Department.

More grape growers are turning to technology to harvest and maintain crops.

“The pressure is more intense than ever to provide more certainty through automation and robotics,” Aguirre said.

UC Davis researchers are leading the effort to automate vineyards with robots.

“They are semi-autonomous. We will set these things up, and then a tractor driver pulls the machine, but now there are even tractors that can drive themselves,” Kurtural said.

Their study shows the technology has a higher upfront cost - but becomes more economical after about two seasons.

“We’re going from about $1.20 to about 12 to 22 cents per vine,” Kurtural said.

While the new technology reduces the need for more manual labor, it also creates new high-wage jobs.

“You need, you know, very skilled people to operate these machines.” Kurtural said.

And there’s a surprising benefit. Research shows mechanically maintained crops come out tasting better.

“The vine is higher up off the ground, so it has better flavor, it has better color, which winemakers desire,” Aguirre said.

“You’ll get a deeper, you know, richer sensation from these vines,” Kurtural said. “The quality is much, much better.”

A taste of new technology is giving growers a glimpse of future farming.

Grapes are California’s third-largest crop. The industry is valued at about $6 billion a year.

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