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How labour shortages are driving vineyards towards automation

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Winegrowers, like other agricultural producers, rely on cheap migrant labour to perform some of the most labour intensive tasks in the process. With COVID-19 lockdowns slowing down the movement of people to the wine-growing regions of the world, vintners started turning to harvesters and other automation processes instead.

How labour shortages are driving vineyards towards automation
Winemaking is a tradition that dates back to almost 10,000 years. The tradition of growing grapes, picking them by hand, crushing them and then fermenting them has remained unchanged over the past centuries. And now, perhaps for the first time, wine-growing is facing labour shortages. Winegrowers across Western Europe are turning to automation to get the work done and reduce dependence on manual labour, reported the Wall Street Journal.
The wine-growing industry along with other agricultural industries across Western Europe, South America and the US employ migrant workers for their labour-intensive tasks. One of the most labour intensive tasks in the wine-growing process is the harvest of grapes and has traditionally been done by hand. With hundreds of acres of vineyards to cover, picking grapes requires a strong workforce and as the workforce willing to do low-paying, physically demanding, and seasonal jobs isn’t readily available anymore, winegrowers are forced to consider other options.
The labour shortages are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic restricted the movement of migrant and temporary workers for months at a time. Local workers are hard to find due to the nature of the job. As a result, vineyards were threatened with unpicked harvests.
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Now vintners are shelling out as much as $98,000 to buy grape harvesters to reduce their dependence on labour. The labour shortage has been so acute that even smaller growers have taken the plunge towards automation.
"It was a very difficult decision for a small farm like ours – it will take a long time to recoup the investment," said Mirko Cappelli, a fourth-generation winemaker, who bought the machine to harvest 13 hectares of grapes. "But once the grapes are ready, I can start picking them. We don’t have to worry about finding workers."
The industry in the past has shied away from automation because of concerns about the quality of the grapes picked by machines, due to possible damage, and also to preserve the tradition of grape picking.
"The entire bunch of grapes must arrive at the press intact and undamaged," said Philippe Wibrotte, a spokesman for Comité Champagne, a trade group for makers of the region's product of the same name. "There is no machine that can harvest without damaging the grapes," he said.
Labour shortages and automation are not the only changes that the wine-growing industry is facing. Faced with rising global temperatures and possible effects like increasing soil acidity, wine-growing areas are slowly shifting into newer areas.
While traditional areas are slowly becoming too warm for wine production, previously colder areas are now becoming suitable regions for wine production. In areas like Argentina and Chile, growers are moving to the coast and mountains. The wine-growing in Southern France might be considering moving to the nearby Alps or Pyrenees as well. At the same time, the UK is getting to be a better wine producer.
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