Vineyard Technology & Equipment

By: Cheryl Gray

Drone flying above beautiful landscape with vineyards

At the moment a bottle of wine is uncorked and poured, the labor and innovation of the equipment industry helping to bring that wine from vineyard to table becomes inextricably tied to the end product consumers enjoy.  Across the United States, vineyards are dependent upon their equipment suppliers to provide them with the latest technology and product support  to keep costs down and produce a high-yield, high-quality harvest.

Take, for example, Progressive Ag, Inc., of Modesto, California, whose company history  reflects a cutting-edge approach to the design and manufacturing of sprayers used before harvest time.  Mark Ryckman, Progressive Ag sales manager and co-owner, keeps a close eye on technology focused on improving crop yield for his customers.

“New mapping software and drone technology are bringing in some great technology advancements into the spraying industry with variable rate application,” says Ryckman. The company manufactures its signature LectroBlast Electrostatic Sprayers with patented design elements aimed at delivering better coverage and reducing spray drift, both of which cut time and cost.  The technology-driven sprayers also promise delivery on other cost-saving measures, including more ground coverage in less time, fewer fill-ups, easy calibration, low maintenance and cheaper fuel and water costs.  The sprayers, which come in tank sizes ranging from 300 to 600 gallons, can be used for all vertical or cross arm vineyards.  These sprayers are capable        of handling vineyards of almost any size.

Progressive has another advantage.  The fact that the company’s manufacturing base is right in Modesto means that its local customers can readily get equipment parts either directly from the plant or at one of several parts depots throughout California, Oregon, Washington and Mexico with more parts depots coming in other locations soon.  As for new products, Progressive Ag has its Solar Blast Solar Panel Washer in production.

One of the largest expenses for vineyards is their labor force.  Years ago, a human workforce was a non-negotiable cost for vineyard owners, with jobs ranging from pruning, thinning, leaf removal to actual harvest.  Today, there is a trend toward using technology to escape heavy reliance on what is becoming an ever-dwindling labor pool, shifting instead to more mechanization.  Some experts predict a future with so-called “no-touch” vineyards, where every element is handled by machinery.

One of those industry experts, Gearmore, Inc., has been in business some 50 years and is on top of this trend.  As a farm equipment distributor, the company maintains its competitive edge by monitoring ever-evolving changes in equipment technology most attractive to its customer base and by keeping in touch with those customers beyond the point of sale.  It is a supplier to a target market that includes California, Hawaii, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.  Its global marketing efforts reach into Mexico and Canada.

Robert Emhoff, Gearmore’s president, describes the company’s singularly most important contribution to its commercial vineyards that he believes keeps those customers loyal to his brand.  “Gearmore supplies our customers with quality equipment sourced from leading manufacturers throughout the world and backs up these products with parts and service.”

The value of customer support after point-of -sale is not lost on those who run operations for vineyards whether large, medium or small.  Although mostly reliant upon trained, manual labor, Arizona Stronghold Vineyards in Camp Verde, Arizona, with an estimated 100 acres, knows all too well the importance of post-sale customer service for its equipment.  Matthew Raica, Winemaker at Arizona Stronghold, says that customer service is, “Critical, especially with how remote we are from where manufacturers or technical staff  are located.  When we have equipment go down that we can repair ourselves, we rely on good customer support to ensure we get back up and running.”

Trevor Amos, Director of Operations and Vineyard Manager at Rock Pocket Vineyards, agrees, emphasizing that this is especially true for small vineyards, whose investment dollars have to stretch farther than their larger competitors.  His company’s small vineyard is located in Oliver, British Columbia, considered the Wine Capital of Canada and part of the Okanagan Valley region.  Amos sees customer service for vineyard equipment important at every stage, from new purchase to need for repair.  “It’s important for good customer service pre, during and after the sale.  If people sell their product, they should support their product throughout its life span.”

Gearmore considers itself well-positioned to meet the needs of vineyards morphing into the “no touch” approach.  It can provide nearly every implement required for growing a successful grape harvest, including tillage tools, mowers, pre-pruners, vine trimmers, leaf removers and more.  The company offers Venturi Air Sprayers, available in 3-point or pull type, ranging from 75 to 500 gallons.  Distribution heads on Venturi Air Sprayers are versatile enough to fit any vineyard profile with nozzles that shear the chemical into fog-like droplets covering the entire plant.

Gearmore is also a chief supplier of Collard products, a family-owned business serving vineyards for five generations and responsible for inventing the first mechanical vine trimmer in 1962.  The Collard Vine Trimmer is especially designed for California’s multiple trellis systems, along with Collard Leaf Removers, which feature 3-point mounted air compressors that power the leaf remover’s defoliation heads. The system works through short, sharp bursts of compressed air blasting the leaves to open the canopy, allowing for more sunlight, better air flow and greater spray penetration.  Gearmore also is a supplier for the Collard Leaf Remover, an equipment choice that offers a solution to debris removal around grape clusters, which ultimately provides for a cleaner harvest.

Canada’s Slimline Manufacturing, based in British Columbia, touts itself as the sprayer manufacturer of choice for grape growers in the Okanagan area, Niagara region, California’s Napa Valley, Oregon and Washington coastal areas as well as other grape growing communities throughout North America.

Turbo-Mist Sprayers have been around in some form since 1948.  When engineer Kim Blagborne purchased the product and founded Slimline Manufacturing in 1991, his experience in design and fabrication led to many of the features and options now available on the modern day versions of Turbo-Mist Sprayers.  Return on investment, through product reliability and amortization, is something the company touts, as its team points out that some of its long-time customers are using versions of Turbo-Mist Sprayers built some 50 years ago.

Careful planning is essential to any farming enterprise and no less important for vineyards.  Slimline Manufacturing revolves its season around its customers’ needs, adding that its Turbo-Mist Sprayers play a vital role.  Slimline Manufacturing boasts of a dealer network that teams up with customers well before harvest time, often up to a year in advance. The goal is to help these customers achieve optimally planned, well managed and environmentally sustained spraying practices.

Rachelle Wirth, Marketing & Communications Manager for Slimline Manufacturing, says the company strives to provide customers with genuine solutions in real time.  “Fuel costs in many of our customers’ regions are becoming astronomical; water shortages are becoming the new normal.  Operating as if these issues are going to correct themselves is not an option.”  Wirth says that Turbo-Mist products enable growers to drastically reduce fuel costs and water use without sacrificing coverage, yield or crop quality.

Working in tandem with vineyards to develop new products is another method by which some manufacturers, including Slimline, keep pace with customers’ needs.  Steve MacDonald manages some 300 acres under MRS Vineyard Service in Oliver, British Columbia.  “Our spray program is a good example of using the best equipment,” MacDonald says.  “Your starting point is choosing a sprayer that will deliver the droplet size you want to where you want it.  Slimline Manufacturing…worked with us to develop a couple of three row machines that are still as good today as when we purchased them in 2009.  Each has over 15,000 acres under their belts.”   MacDonald translates that coverage into less than five dollars per acre applied capital cost for a $70,000 machine.

Felco is another company which turns to its growers for input into product development.  Ryan Amberg, Marketing & Business Development Manager at Pygar USA, a division of Felco, says, “New product developed by Felco is done in a grassroots manner where the modifications and design requests happen from the grower and end user level. This is part of the reason Felco offers the most comprehensive assortment of high quality tools in the market.”

When it comes to vineyards, Felco products cater largely to pruning needs, although it also  offers a small snip range.  Among the current leader in this product line is the Felco 310 snip.   Its stainless steel composition resists rust in the field and its replaceable spring insures multiple seasons of use.

Amberg explains that his company is ready for harvest sales immediately following the end of pruning season, which means its sales cycle for harvest begins as early as March and doesn’t end until late September.  He adds that the variety of climates where vineyards are located in the United States dictates the calendar for Pygar USA.  The company is a division of Felco, which has a global network covering the continents of North America, Europe, Africa and Australia.

Equipment purchases can be a major investment expected to bring harvest benefits to vineyards over multiple years and the dependability of that product is perhaps second only to the customer service provided by the suppliers and manufacturers.  For vineyards, it can mean the difference between either a successful harvest or a failed one.  For equipment manufacturers and suppliers, it means keeping customers loyal and earning their respect in a highly-competitive industry.

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