Machines get greater role in Central Coast wine grape harvest

Labor shortage, rising wages driving mechanization

SANTA MARIA VALLEY, Calif. - The Central Coast wine grape harvest is in full swing with technology helping more and more growers bring in their fruit.

With chronic labor shortages and mandated higher wages, growers are turning to machines to get the job done.

Wine grapes are a top cash crop in Central Coast agriculture with annual production valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

For decades some growers have relied on mechanical harvesters to bring in their fruit.

"We use quite a few of them as labor gets tighter, technology gets better and we're able to use those machines out in the field", said Kevin Merrill with Mesa Vineyard Management in northern Santa Barbara County.

Row upon row of ripened fruit is removed from the vines by the mechanical harvesters that are as productive as hand labor if not more so.

"We can pick about 200-300 tons a night with two machines so we can get the fruit out", Merrill said, "in the wine grape industry we're lucky that the grapes ultimately are crushed, so we're not dealing with table grapes or something like that, so that really lends itself well to being mechanically picked."

The multi-billion dollar California agriculture industry continues to wait for federal immigration reform to provide some farm labor relief.

But with greater competition for fieldworkers and state-mandated higher wages, machines, mechanization and automation are seen by growers and farmers as the only viable option.

"I think the machines can do equally as good a job as the people", Merrill added, "there are still some wineries that require you to hand pick their fruit, some higher level wines still want their stuff picked by hand, there's some geography that doesn't let you get machines in it, so we still need the people out there but we're doing more and more with machines."

Merrill said this year's wine grape crop is expected to be about average, no bigger than previous years, with good quality.

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