mechanical harvesters vineyard equipment

Vineyard Equipment Spotlight: Mechanical Harvesters

Terroir is a French concept that roughly translates to how climate, geography and environment are expressed through wine. It’s these unique factors that make region so important to the consumer – but these same factors can also be challenging for growers seeking product consistency when vineyard conditions are anything but.

The good news for growers is that recent advancements in vineyard equipment – mechanical harvesters and frost control, in particular – are helping bring consistency, efficiency and most importantly, reduction of risk, to the grower.

Mechanical Harvesting Advancements and Considerations

Mechanical harvesters save vineyards time and money while ensuring quality. The right mechanical harvester for your needs is driven by several factors we will discuss in more detail later. In addition to those particular needs, your selection should be driven by the time frame needed to return your initial investment. How soon will you benefit from any cost savings? Will those cost savings allow you to reinvest in other revenue-generating opportunities?

While there are ongoing advancements in mechanical harvesting, this is by no means new technology. Vineyards in France have been using mechanical harvesters for many years due to a lack of manual labor, which drove the need for an innovation that is now benefitting vineyards across the world.

Benefits of Mechanical Harvesters

The cost of labor for harvesting is expensive and increasing every year.  For example, in 2016, California passed an overtime bill and minimum wage law for farm workers that raises the costs of handpicking. That bill, coupled with a limited labor force, demands the adoption of a more mechanized means of farming. As the harvest progresses, sometimes a picking crew can and will renegotiate the contract and ultimately increase the cost of labor.  John Felice of Pellenc America, Inc. said, “A machine does not renegotiate the cost of picking. Depending upon the size of the vineyard, you can reduce the size of your labor force from 40-50 people to three or four by adopting mechanical harvesting.”

One concern many growers have about mechanical harvesters is the condition of the harvested grapes when compared to handpicking. However, Gary Petersen of Garton Tractor states, “Recent advances in shaker and bow rod design have reduced if not eliminated these concerns. New Holland’s NORIA system, for example, moves at the speed of the harvester which eliminates ‘slapping’ of the vine and is gentler on the vine and canopy.”

Mechanical harvesting is clearly ripe with benefits, but the transition still requires careful thought and consideration. Here’s what you should think through:

Vineyard and Harvester Considerations

There are several key considerations when it comes to selecting the right harvester – at the right price – for your vineyard.

The minimum number of acres to be harvested is the first important consideration when performing your cost/benefit analysis of purchasing a harvester. Felice explains how vine spacing factors into the minimum acreage, “Wider spacing increases the minimum acreage calculation. A five-feet spacing, for example, places the minimum in the 125 to 150 acre range. An eight-feet spacing increases that minimum to 200 to 225 acres.”

Other considerations that will determine the right harvester for your vineyard, and ultimately the cost, include row length, ease of turning, cost of fuel and costs of maintenance and transportation.

The vineyard structure also factors into which machine is best suited for your vineyard(s). You can fit the tractor to the size of your row or purchase a machine that can harvest multi-sized rows. Also, is your trellis system vertical in structure? If not, you will need to redo the system to make way for a mechanical harvester – and pay the associated costs. Of course, that will not be a concern for newer wineries. Hal Forcey of Forcey Appraisal states most vineyard development in recent years is built for mechanical harvest whether that is the initial goal or not.

The slope of the vineyard is another important factor. Steep hillside vineyards will need to be picked by hand. Several experts in the field cited 25 to 40 percent as the maximum slope range for mechanical harvesters.

Lastly, tonnage per acre will determine the type of harvester best suited for your needs. A side discharge unit makes sense for heavy yields in the four to 14 ton per acre range, especially if the rows are long. This eliminates the need to drive to the row’s end to unload.

Convinced mechanical harvesting is right for your vineyard? The price tag is another important consideration.

Harvest Pricing and Accessory Considerations

Harvester prices range from $300,000 to $400,000 per basic unit.  Accessories add to the overall costs, but can provide additional cost savings, especially if the unit can eliminate work duplication or replace other machinery. Most harvesters come standard with MOG fans. Additional accessories that you may consider purchasing include de-stemmers, sprayers, trimmers, leafing attachments, pre-pruners, disks, grape sorts and GPS Row Marking Systems.

A mechanical harvester could replace several pieces of existing equipment, but it’s important to review your overall cost and need. Petersen explains that, for example, it might be more economical to keep a smaller tractor for certain tasks, such as spraying, if fuel consumption is an issue. You will want to discuss your needs in depth with your prospective equipment dealer. The dealer will visit your vineyard and analyze historic harvest information to make the best recommendation.

Securing Funding for Vineyard Improvements

Finding the right financing is important when doing your cost/benefit analysis for any type of equipment purchase. Some dealers provide in-house financing from a captive lender (the manufacturer and lender have mutual ownership). This can be attractive, but tends to be for less specialized types of equipment that are sold in high volumes such as trucks, tractors, etc.

Things to consider when shopping for a lender are the rate, term, amortization and down payment (if any) is required. Conventional lenders tend to base the term and amortization on the IRS depreciation schedules. Others, such as SBA lenders, utilize the appraised useful life which is longer, and in some cases, significantly so. This lowers your payment, which increases your cash flow.

It is to your benefit to work with a lender that specializes in the winery and vineyard industry. They understand your business and have loan products tailored to your unique needs.