Robots take over Italian vineyards as wineries tackle Covid-19 worker shortage

VALDELSA, Italy — Last year’s harvest was a painful ordeal in Mirko Cappelli’s Tuscan vineyard. With the Italian border closed due to the pandemic, the Eastern European workers he relied on were unable to enter the country. The company he had hired to supply the grape pickers had no one to offer him. He finally found just enough workers to bring the grapes on time.

So this year, Mr. Cappelli made sure he wouldn’t face the same problem: he spent € 85,000, or $ 98,000, on a grape harvester.

The coronavirus pandemic is pushing the wine industry towards automation.

Covid-related travel restrictions left severe shortages of farm workers last year as East Europeans and North Africans were unable to reach fields in Western Europe. Although shortages have eased this year, the difficulty in finding workers has accelerated the shift, which was already underway in the agricultural sector.

While the harvests of some crops, like soybeans and corn, are already heavily automated, winegrowers have taken longer to make the switch. Winemakers wonder if automated harvesting is more likely to damage the grapes, which can affect the quality of the wine. The cost is a deterrent for many small farmers. Some European regions even prohibit machine harvesting.

Ritano Baragli, foreground, picking grapes by hand.

For many winemakers in Europe and the United States, however, the difficulty of finding workers – a problem they say has grown steadily for years but became acute during the pandemic – pushed them to cross. the step of the robot. It’s a change that will survive the pandemic and could alter long-standing migration patterns that bring tens of thousands of foreign workers to Italy, France and Spain for agricultural crops every year.

Ritano Baragli, president of Cantina Sociale colli Fiorentini Valvirgilio, a group of winegrowers in Tuscany, said it has been increasingly difficult to find pickers for several years as locals increasingly avoid short-term work , physically demanding and poorly paid, while the demand for pickers has increased.

But last year was the worst labor shortage in his half-century of wine career. The use of harvesting machines among group members has increased by 20% this year in response, he said.

“Even the smallest producers have started to consider buying machines,” Baragli said.

Mr. Cappelli was one of those who made the switch.

Grapes unloaded from a harvesting machine on Mirko Cappelli’s farm in Tuscany.

Once their grapes have been picked, the winemakers of Cantina Sociale colli Fiorentini Valvirgilio take them to a collection center to be transformed into wine.

“It was a very difficult decision for a small farm like ours – it will take a long time to pay off the investment,” Mr. Cappelli, a fourth generation winemaker, said of purchasing the machine to harvest. its 13 hectares of grapes. “But now, when the grapes are ready, I can go and pick them. We don’t have to worry about finding workers.

He was lucky enough to be able to get the machine, made by the French manufacturer Pellenc. Philippe Astoin, director of the company’s agricultural division, said demand for automated grape harvesting machines has increased by 5-10% per year, but has grown by around 20% this year.

A parts shortage, which also hit automakers during the pandemic, has kept the company from filling all orders. Mr. Astoin expects demand to continue growing as rising labor costs make automation comparatively more affordable. In Britain, for example, the minimum wage for farm workers rose 34% between 2014 and 2020, according to Andersons, a group of farm consultants.

“What we hear from our customers in [Western] Europe and North America… aren’t they sure they can bring together the people they need for the harvest, ”said Mr. Astoin.

However, some wine regions remain dedicated to traditional manual harvests. In some cases, the machines are unsuitable for steep terrain, or certain wine styles. In France, where the agricultural sector depends less on foreign labor than in Italy or Spain, the labor shortage and the push towards mechanization have been less urgent.

And in regions that produce premium, high-priced wine, winegrowers doubt that a machine can do the job as well as a human.

In Burgundy, France, automated grape pickers have not been successful, according to Thiébault Huber, president of the Confédération des Appellations et des Vignerons de Bourgogne, a professional group of winegrowers, in part because of farmers’ skepticism about the quality of the wines. grapes they pick. .

Mechanical harvesting is prohibited in Champagne under laws aimed at maintaining the tradition of manual harvesting.

Ritano Baragli uses a machine to pick most of the grapes on his land, but still does part of the vineyard by hand.

“It was a very difficult decision for a small farm like ours,” said Mirko Cappelli, foreground, of the purchase of a grape harvester.

“The whole bunch of grapes must arrive at the press intact, without any damage”, declared Philippe Wibrotte, spokesperson for the Champagne Committee, a professional group of manufacturers of the eponymous product in the region. “There is no machine that can harvest without damaging the grapes,” he said.

In Valdelsa, an area between Siena and Florence known for producing Chianti, winegrowers say machines do at least a job of harvesting as good as humans.

Mr Baragli hires a neighbor with a grape harvester to pick most of his 12 hectares of grapes, a practice increasingly common in the region. But he still does a part of the vineyard by hand.

Last week, he and several members of his family made their way through the remaining unpicked vines. They cut bunches of grapes from the stems and threw them in buckets. Each row took about 30 minutes for the half-dozen workers.

It was a throwback to the days when harvesting was a community rite in Tuscany – when family and friends got together to pick grapes and students helped earn extra money – before industry relies regularly on foreign workers over the past two decades.

“I would miss it,” Mr. Baragli’s daughter Ilaria Baragli said of hand picking, if her father opted for a fully mechanical harvest. “But I am also open to new technologies.

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At Mr. Cappelli’s vineyard, a few kilometers away, Mr. Cappelli attached his new machine to the back of his tractor. Clicking and buzzing, the grape picker shook the row of vines, sucking up the falling fruit. Each row was done in about three minutes, leaving behind fruitless stems except for a few unripe small grapes.

Mr Cappelli and his father completed the harvest in about 10 days, he said, compared to about 18 days with manual pickers, and he was spared the headache of finding workers.

“These modern machines do a great job, sometimes even better than the workers,” he said. “Especially in terms of cleaning the grapes and removing the stalks.”

For some farmers, the pandemic has left them no choice but to embrace automation.

Jaume Solé, a farmer from Catalonia, Spain, who grows grapes to make cava, had relied heavily in recent years on Senegalese workers for the harvest. But last year, there was nowhere to house workers in his small mountain village which complied with Covid-19 regulations. He reportedly hired a company with a machine to harvest the crop, but the nearest was 20 kilometers, too far away to bring a harvester on the mountain roads.

Last winter he bought his own machine, a 30-year-old model that was one of the first automated harvesters, for € 45,000. For his 25 hectare farm, that was all he could afford, and it would take at least five years to make it profitable. But he felt he had no choice.

“It was better not to buy a very expensive one, with this uncertain economic situation,” said Solé, referring to the pandemic. “It’s old, but it works.”

The fall harvest in Tuscany relied more on family and friends to pick the grapes before relying more and more on foreign workers.

Write to Ian Lovett at [email protected]

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