Growing & Winemaking


Future Farm Expo: Agriculture Interconnected

December 2017
by Andy Starr

This August, I was fortunate to attend the Future Farm Expo in Pendleton, Ore. Following the theme of “Agriculture Interconnected,” there were speaker sessions focused on field robotics and automation, ground sensors, crop imagery, data use, precision irrigation and more.

The expo addresses the fundamental issue that farms must significantly improve productivity if the Earth is going to be able to feed 2 billion more people by 2050. At the same time, physically demanding and/or dangerous jobs are being eliminated. Grape presses were once hand-cranked, which is fine if you don’t mind hiring (and probably having to feed) a number of beefy employees and can live with leaving 25% of the juice behind. Coal mining is no longer done with a pick and shovel; instead, entire mountaintops are removed with explosives and massive pieces of equipment—a safer (though environmentally disastrous) and more efficient method that requires very few employees.

Beyond the global picture, the grape industry faces these challenges:
• The average age of a vineyard worker is increasing.
• There are fewer young people coming to the United States to replace retirees due to both the availability of good jobs in Mexico and border restriction. An analysis from the Pew Research Center estimates that between 2009 and 2014, 1 million migrant workers and their families returned to Mexico, but only 870,000 came from Mexico to replace them, leaving a net loss of 130,000 workers.
• Many experienced vineyard workers have learned enough English to allow them to get better jobs away from heat and cold, rain and dust.
• California is increasing its minimum wage from $10 to $15 per hour over the next several years. Agricultural overtime rules are changing—moving from a 60-hour week to a 40-hour week threshold. If your vineyard workers are currently paid $10 per hour and averaging 40 hours per week, your labor costs will increase 50%. If they are working 60 hours per week during seasonal peaks, the wage increase will be 75%.

The grape industry is not alone in having these issues. While the modern apple orchard has switched from 25-foot-tall shady trees to “walls” of 12-foot trees trained on horizontal wires (imagine head-trained grapevines going to cordons), all apple picking is still done by hand. One speaker showed side-by-side photos of strawberry picking 50 years ago and how they are picked today, and the only difference between the two was that the 50-year-old photo was black and white, and the current one was in color.

Autonomy from above: drones in the vineyard
George Kellerman, chief operating officer and general partner of Silicon Valley-based Yamaha Motor Ventures & Laboratory, spoke at the expo about the critical need for robotics and autonomy. (Yamaha created the first commercially operating helicopter drones for agriculture spraying and has a significant presence in the FutureFarm Tech Ag Accelerator in Pendleton.)

Kellerman said that without advances, some crops may become so prohibitively expensive to farm that they price themselves out of consumer budgets. This has happened before: Wild salmon were once so plentiful in the Northwest that they were called “poverty steaks,” as poor people could easily catch a few to have something nutritious to eat. Currently wild salmon costs $25-$30 per pound, putting it out of reach for almost everyone. While the reason for the salmon price spike is different than for a high-labor cost crop, the result is the same: Few people can afford to buy it.

Using drones in farming is not a futuristic concept, it is already a reality. Although Yamaha’s drones are relatively new to U.S. viticulture, there are 2,500 unmanned aerial vehicles being used at a range of Japanese farms today. Drones are commonly used for aerial imaging, with the lower flying altitude providing greater detail than a manned aircraft.
The next phase for drones is farming operations. Yamaha’s helicopter drone can spray fungicide from the air. While that may seem like a complicated way to do a simple task, consider these advantages:
• No need to wait for soil to dry to run your tractor, so you can spray much earlier in the season. This allows you to attack mold and mildew early, and probably reduces the number of annual applications.
• No soil compaction from driving a tractor through the vineyard in the spring.
• Safer for employees. The spray is no longer being applied close to the operator.
• A drone can cover more ground per hour than a tractor.
Looking forward, development work is being done to program Yamaha’s drones, reducing the need for an on-the-ground pilot. It’s not a big step to imagine a drone programmed to fly at a constant low elevation above the vineyard, turning 180° and shifting 8-10 feet to spray the next row. 

Autonomy on the ground
An interesting panel included a representative from John Deere, a company that’s working on robotics and autonomous farm vehicles (i.e. driverless tractors), and Mel Torrie, chief executive officer of Autonomous Solutions Inc., based in Utah. Torrie’s company has mastered driverless vehicles in a number of industrial settings, most notably in mining. A driverless vehicle is remote-control driven down a narrow, steep tunnel road; explosives are then robotically set into the rock, the vehicle is backed out, and explosives are triggered. It’s far safer than sending a human driver into the tunnel.

It would appear that a driverless tractor would be easier to create than a driverless car, since the former is just going up and down the vine row and has fewer patterns to recognize (fences, trees, etc.) than what is seen on a busy avenue (other cars, motorcycles, texting teenagers). Torrie explained that the technology is ready, but insurance liability is preventing commercialization of the technology. Widespread use of autonomous tractors should vastly reduce field injuries and deaths, but the liability for the few that do occur could shift to the manufacturer. If no one will insure the manufacturer, the tractor won’t get built.

ROVR: the Remote-Operated Vineyard Robot
The most exciting vineyard technology at the expo was the Remote Operated Vineyard Robot (ROVR) from Digital Harvest, a start-up based in Pendleton. Digital harvest CEO Young Kim has an entirely different approach to solving the labor shortage and dirty job/work-safety issues. He sees the problem as uneven labor distribution: There is insufficient labor supply at the farm location, but there is plenty of labor available elsewhere. His solution is to virtually connect workers and the farm. With reliable internet coverage, vineyard workers can be located anywhere and operate ROVRs using virtual-reality devices. Theoretically the “work crew” could be in an air-conditioned room anywhere in the world, operating virtual pruning shears that instruct real pruning shears in a California vineyard. The vineyard gets staffed, and at a lower hourly rate. In addition, the workers are in a much safer work environment free of bugs, snakes, sunburn and rainstorms.

To date the ROVR has been demonstrated to prune grapevines and harvest clusters. It is in prototype stage and looks like a golf cart equipped with robotic shears and clamps, plus several cameras. Digital Harvest is working closely with Yamaha, which graciously supplied the driverless “golf cart” and provided access to its robotic engineering team—an additional benefit of having such a big player involved in emerging farm technology. Kim’s plans for the ROVR will include most vineyard tasks such as pruning, shoot thinning, suckering, wire lifting, fruit thinning and harvesting. Of these, the only one that is currently automated is harvesting, but it requires a fairly expensive piece of equipment.

The trade show also had a number of innovative, commercially available products. I liked UBCO’s electric “dirt bike,” a simplified motorcycle that seemed ideal for modern vineyard monitoring and grape sampling. It has USB and charging ports for your laptop or iPad, so you can collect data and communicate with your home office from the vineyard. Plus, it looked easy to ride.

‘Innovation moves at the speed of money’
From my experience developing new technology, I know the importance of industry support to turn futuristic concepts into commercial products. Twenty years ago, the development of synthetic wine corks was jumpstarted by the financial and technical support of visionaries like Michael Mondavi and Glenn O’Dell (then technical director at Sebastiani/Constellation Brands).

Young Kim at Digital Harvest used the expression: “Innovation moves at the speed of money.” Like many who are developing cutting-edge farm technology, Digital Harvest is a startup filled with brilliant, creative people, but dependent on outside financial support.

So where do we go from here? I see two possible directions, but only one that moves us forward.

Wait around for someone else to figure it out: In the meantime, you can complain about not having enough workers, rising minimum wage and workers compensation insurance rates, not being able to spray until the soil dries out. Snicker at early prototypes and smugly explain why they’ll never catch on. If an entrepreneur calls on you, don’t answer.

Get involved: Invest time and money in solutions. Support the startups and the innovators who need partners like you to make their inventions work. Help them to help you: Spend an hour with an entrepreneur to explain how your vineyard operates. Sign up to be a beta-test site. Invest a little money in a startup. Attend events like the Future Farm Expo.

The cost and scarcity of vineyard labor is certain to increase, which means we all must support innovative solutions to advance our vines and our industry.

Andy Starr, founder of StarrGreen (, is an entrepreneur, marketing manager and winemaker who provides strategy, management and business development consulting services. A resident of Napa Valley, Calif., he holds a bachelor’s degree in fermentation science from the University of California, Davis, and an MBA from UCLA.

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