The Italian wine industry has been struggling for years, with many vineyards closing down and the country’s wine production decreasing. Now, robots are taking over the vineyards to help pick grapes and increase productivity.
VALDELSA (Italy) – Last year’s grape harvest at Mirko Cappelli’s Tuscan estate was a frantic rush. Because of the epidemic, the Italian border was closed, and the Eastern European laborers he had grown to depend on were unable to enter the nation. He had hired a business to provide grape pickers, but they had no one to give him. He was eventually able to find just enough employees to deliver the grapes on time.
So Mr. Cappelli made sure he wouldn’t have the same issue this year by investing €85,000 (about $98,000) on a grape-harvesting equipment.
The wine business is being pushed toward automation by the coronavirus epidemic.
Last year, because to Covid-related travel restrictions, agricultural laborers from Eastern Europe and North Africa were unable to access fields in Western Europe, resulting in acute shortages. Despite the fact that labor shortages have improved this year, the difficulties in recruiting employees has hastened the transition that was already underway in the agricultural sector.
While other crops, such as soybeans and maize, have already been extensively mechanized, winemakers have been slower to adopt the technology. Vintners argue about whether mechanized harvesting is more likely to harm grapes, lowering the wine’s quality. Many small farmers are put off by the expense. Machine harvesting is even prohibited in certain European areas.
In the foreground, Ritano Baragli is harvesting grapes by hand.
However, for many vintners in Europe and the United States, the inability to recruit workers—a issue that they claim has been growing gradually for years but became severe during the pandemic—has driven them to embrace robotics. It’s a transformation that will outlive the epidemic and has the potential to alter long-standing migratory patterns that send tens of thousands of foreign workers to Italy, France, and Spain each year to work in agricultural harvests.
Ritano Baragli, head of the Cantina Sociale Colli Fiorentini Valvirgilio, a Tuscan winemaker’s association, said it has been difficult to recruit pickers for many years as locals have shied away from the physically demanding, low-paying, short-term job, while demand for pickers has grown.
Last year, though, he saw the greatest labor scarcity in his 50-year tenure in the wine industry. In response, he claimed, the use of harvesting equipment among the group’s members rose by 20% this year.
Mr. Baragli said, “Even smaller companies began looking at purchasing equipment.”
Mr. Cappelli was one of the early adopters.
On Mirko Cappelli’s Tuscany property, grapes being unloaded from a harvesting equipment.
Growers from the Cantina Sociale colli Fiorentini Valvirgilio carry their grapes to a gathering facility to be processed into wine after they’ve been harvested.
Mr. Cappelli, a fourth-generation winemaker, said of purchasing the equipment to harvest his 13 hectares of grapes, “It was a really difficult choice for a tiny farm like ours—it will take a long time to earn the investment back.” “But now I can go harvest the grapes when they’re ripe. We don’t have to be concerned about recruiting employees.”
He was fortunate to be able to get the machine, which was manufactured by Pellenc in France. According to Philippe Astoin, head of the company’s agricultural business, demand for automated grape harvesters has been increasing at a rate of 5% to 10% each year, but has increased by about 20% this year.
The business was unable to fulfill all of the orders because to a lack of components, which also affected automobile manufacturers throughout the epidemic. Mr. Astoin predicts that demand will continue to rise as labor costs rise, making automation more cheap. According to Andersons, a farm business consulting firm, the minimum wage for agricultural employees in the United Kingdom rose 34% between 2014 and 2020.
Mr. Astoin said, “What we hear from our clients in [Western] Europe and North America…is that they’re not confident they’ll be able to collect the personnel they need for the harvest.”
Traditional hand harvesting is still practiced in certain wine-growing areas. The machines aren’t always suitable to steep terrain or certain grape-growing methods. The labor shortage—and the drive toward mechanization—has been less pressing in France than in Italy or Spain, where the agricultural industry is less dependent on migrant laborers.
Growers in high-end, high-priced wine areas are skeptical that a computer can perform the job as effectively as a person.
According to Thiébault Huber, president of the Confédération des Appellations et des Vignerons de Bourgogne, mechanical harvesters haven’t taken off in Burgundy, France, in part due to farmers’ mistrust about the quality of the grapes they collect.
Champagne has regulations prohibiting machine harvesting in order to preserve the handpicking heritage.
The majority of the grapes on Ritano Baragli’s property are picked by machine, although a portion of the vineyard is still done by hand.
‘Buying a grape-harvesting equipment was a really difficult choice for a tiny farm like ours,’ said Mirko Cappelli, in the foreground.
“The entire cluster of grapes needs to arrive to the press intact, without any damage,” Philippe Wibrotte, a spokesperson for Comité Champagne, a trade organization for producers of the region’s namesake wine, said. He said, “There is no equipment that can harvest without harming the grapes.”
Vintners in Valdelsa, a Chianti-producing area between Siena and Florence, claim the robots pick the grapes just as well as people.
Mr. Baragli employs a neighbor with a harvesting machine to pick the majority of his 12 hectares of grapes, which is becoming more popular in the area. However, he still tends to a portion of the vineyard by hand.
He and other family members went through the remaining unpicked vines last week. They cut the stems off bunches of grapes and threw them into buckets. The half-dozen employees took approximately 30 minutes to complete each row.
It was a return to a time when the harvest in Tuscany was a community rite—when family and friends would come to pick grapes and students would pitch in for extra cash—before the sector gradually grew to depend on foreign labor over the last two decades.
Mr. Baragli’s daughter, Ilaria Baragli, said she would miss hand picking if her father switched to machine harvesting completely. “However, I am open to new technology.”
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Mr. Cappelli was attaching his new equipment to the back of his tractor at his vineyard, a few kilometers distant. The harvester shook the row of vines, scooping up the fruit that dropped as a consequence of his clanking and humming. Each row took approximately three minutes to complete, leaving stems bare of fruit save for a few tiny, underripe grapes.
Mr. Cappelli and his father completed the harvest in about 10 days, compared to approximately 18 days with handpickers, and he didn’t have to worry about hiring labor, he added.
“These contemporary robots perform admirably—in some cases, even better than humans,” he added. “In particular, when it comes to washing the grapes and removing the stems.”
The epidemic has left some farmers with little option but to accept technology.
In recent years, Jaume Solé, a farmer in Catalonia, Spain, who produces grapes for cava, has depended heavily on Senegalese harvesters. However, in his tiny mountain hamlet last year, there was nowhere for employees to reside that fulfilled Covid-19 requirements. He would have hired a harvesting business, but the closest one was 20 kilometers distant, too far for a harvester to go on mountain routes.
He paid €45,000 for his own machine last winter, a 30-year-old type that was one of the first automated harvesters. It was all he could afford for his 25-hectare farm, and it would take him at least five years to pay off. But he thought he didn’t have a choice.
“With this uncertain economic situation,” Mr. Solé added, alluding to the epidemic, “it was best not to purchase a really costly one.” “It’s ancient, but it’s functional.”
Tuscany’s fall harvest used to depend on family and friends to gather grapes before resorting to the employment of foreign laborers.
Ian Lovett can be reached at email@example.com.
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