Robots take over Italy’s vineyards as wineries struggle with Covid-19 worker shortages

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Italian winemakers have increasingly relied on migrant workers for the autumn harvest, but travel restrictions and rising wage costs are prompting many to turn to machines.

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Last year’s grape harvest was a harrowing scramble at Mirco Capelli’s Tuscan vineyard. With the Italian border closed due to the pandemic, the Eastern European worker he had come to trust could not come to the country. The company he had contracted to supply the grape pickers had no one to give him. He eventually got enough workers to get the grapes on time.

So, this year Mr. Capelli made sure he didn’t face the same problem: he spent €85,000, the equivalent of $98,000, on a grape harvesting machine.

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The coronavirus pandemic is pushing the wine industry towards automation.

Covid-related travel restrictions left a severe shortage of farm workers last year, as Eastern Europeans and North Africans were unable to access farms in Western Europe. While the shortage has eased this year, the difficulty of finding workers hastened the change, which was already underway in the agriculture sector.

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While the harvest of some crops, such as soybeans and corn, is already heavily automated, winemakers have been slow to make the switch. Vintners debate whether automatic harvesting is more likely to damage grapes, which can affect wine quality. Cost is a deterrent for many small farmers. Some European regions have also banned machine harvesting.

However, for many vintners in Europe and the US, the difficulty of finding workers – a problem they say had steadily increased over the years but intensified during the pandemic – has prompted them to take advantage of robots. . It’s a change that would end the pandemic and could change long-standing migration patterns that bring thousands of foreign workers to Italy, France and Spain each year for agricultural produce.

Ritano Burgli, president of the Cantina Social Colli Fiorentini Valvirgilio, a winemaker’s group in Tuscany, said it has been hard to find a picker for many years, as locals are increasingly turning away physically demanding, low-paying, short-term work. while demand is being made. The takers have increased.

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But last year was the worst labor shortage of his half-century career in wine. He said the use of harvesting machines among group members has increased by 20 per cent this year.

“Small producers also started buying machines,” said Mr. Burgley.

Mr Capelli was one of the switchers.

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

He was lucky to find a machine made by the French manufacturer Palenque. Philippe Estoin, director of the company’s Department of Agriculture, said that demand for automatic grape harvesters is growing 5% to 10% annually, but grew about 20% this year.

The shortage of parts – which has also plagued carmakers during the pandemic – has left the company unable to fill all orders. Mr Estoin expects demand to continue to grow, as rising labor costs make automation more affordable by comparison. For example, in the UK, the minimum wage for agricultural workers has increased by 34% between 2014 and 2020, according to agribusiness advisory group Anderson.

What we hear from our customers [Western] Europe and North America… are they not sure they can gather the people needed for the harvest,” Mr Aston said.

Nevertheless, some wine-growing regions are devoted to the traditional hand harvest. In some cases, machines are unsuitable for steep terrain, or for certain grape growing styles. In France, where the agricultural sector is less dependent on foreign workers than in Italy or Spain, the labor shortage – and the push towards mechanization – is less urgent.

And in regions that produce high-end, high-value wine, producers are skeptical that a machine can do as well as a human.

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In Burgundy, France, automatic harvesters have not caught on, according to Thibault Huber, president of the Confédération des Appellations et des Vignerons de Bourgogne, a winemaker trade group, partly because of farmers’ doubts about the quality of the grapes. .

Machine harvesting is banned in Champagne, under laws designed to perpetuate the tradition of hand-picking.

“The whole group of grapes has to reach the press without harm,” said Philippe Vibrotte, a spokesman for Comité Champagne, a trade group for the region’s makers of the eponymous product. “There is no machine that can harvest grapes without damaging them,” he said.

In Valdelsa, an area between Siena and Florence known for its production of Chianti, Winters says the machines function at least as well as humans.

Mr. Bargali hires a neighbor with a harvesting machine to pick up most of his 12 hectares of grapes, which is a common practice in the region. But he still does part of the vineyard by hand.

Last week, he and several members of his family worked their way through the remaining vines. He cut bunches of grapes from the stem and threw them in buckets. Each row took about 30 minutes for half a dozen workers.

It was a throwback to the past two decades before the industry relied heavily on foreign workers when harvest was a communal rite in Tuscany – when families and friends gathered to pick grapes and students helped make extra money.

“I’ll miss it,” said Mr. Bargley’s daughter, Ilaria Bargley, of raising her hand, if her father had gone for the full machine harvesting. “But I’m also drawn to new technology.”

In Mr. Capelli’s vineyard, a few miles away, Mr. Capelli was mounting his new machine to the back of his tractor. Clapped and humming, the harvester shook the row of vines, sucking up the resulting fruit. Each row was done in about three minutes, except for a few small, underripe grapes, leaving behind stems that were devoid of fruit.

Mr Capelli and his father finished the harvest in about 10 days, he said, compared with about 18 days with handpickers, and they were saved from 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 getting rid of the stems.”

For some farmers, the pandemic has left them with no option but to adopt automation.

Jaime Sole, a farmer in Catalonia, Spain, who grows grapes to make cava, has in recent years relied largely on Senegalese workers for the harvest. But last year, there was nowhere for the workers to stay in their small hill village, which met the Covid-19 regulations. He may have hired a company with a machine to harvest the crops, but the nearest was 20 kilometers away, too far to bring the harvesters to the mountain roads.

Last winter he bought his machine, a 30-year-old model that was one of the first automatic harvesters, for €45,000. For his 25 hectare farm, he could have spent so much, and it would take at least five years to repay it. But he felt he had no choice.

“With this precarious economic situation, it was better not to buy too expensive,” Mr Sole said, referring to the pandemic. “It’s old, but it works.”

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