By Heather Barrett
Mechanization begins replacing manual labor when the cost of operating, maintaining, and purchasing the equipment is cheaper and/or more dependable than hiring workers to complete the same task. The labor force for vineyard work has both declined in availability and quality over the last several years and so mechanization has become more common. A response to this trend is the development of technology to perform vineyard maintenance with as few workers as possible, in many cases only requiring a single person. These are generally single row tool attachments for tractors that apply uniform treatment to a vineyard block.
The VMech-2220 is a two-row tool carrier that can be used for pruning, shoot thinning and suckering. This machine has been featured in several demonstrations out in California vineyards, two of which included research plots for the Efficient Vineyard Project. Both arms are independent of each other and can be adjusted to each row as the tractor moves through the vineyard. It has also been adapted to be used in tandem with variable rate technology to enable variable rate management plans which have been shown to increase vineyard health and yield compared with uniform management. All numbers listed reflect Lake Erie Region averages using a two row trailer (a single row unit is not currently available from VMech).
So for a hypothetical scenario of a vineyard with varieties growing in an upright growing pattern (VSP) with 100 acres, the total savings per year would be ~$48,000. At this rate of savings, the VMech-2220 pays for itself in just over 4 years. These numbers are for wine growers in the Lake Erie Region; in areas where the cost of labor is higher or lower the length of time for the machine to pay for itself could be different. The cost to operate the machine is based on having two people to operate the trailer and one person driving the tractor at a rate of $20/hour. This number is an average for the pay of an equipment operator. If variable rate technology is in use and a prescription map is loaded then the trailer operators only need to make sure the arms are lined up properly with the grape rows. Uniform rates can also be set for the operators but they will not change according to the location or needs of the vine without input from a prescription map.
The VMech-2220 and all of its components are listed for $199,500 not including freight or taxes. The 2220 suite comes with the trailer ($82,000), barrel pruning heads ($76,000), and cordon brush/shoot thinning heads ($41,500). In addition to the cost of the machine, it would cost around $15,000 to add variable rate technology.
VMech continues to look into other add-ons for the trailer to make it more versatile in the vineyard. Future additions might include: leaf puller attachment, sprayer attachment, rake attachment, and automation (reducing human input and necessary labor). Feel free to come in and speak to our viticulturist about steps towards mechanization and variable rate management plans at the Lake Erie Regional Grape Program office in Portland, New York.