March 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines

Mechanizing Vineyard Development

Planting machines slow to catch on in West, but new option for ripping could quicken vine development

by Andrew Adams
Click the photo above to watch a Clemens GPS-guided planting machine in action in this video produced by the German vineyard equipment manufacturer.
To Cameron Hosmer, owner of Hosmer Winery in New York’s Finger Lakes region, the revelation came when he saw a new vineyard planted in about six hours. “That was it; I said I’ll never plant by hand again,” he told Wines & Vines.

Hosmer figured the job would have taken three to four days if done by hand, and the rows could have been crooked, with vines placed at varying spacing or depths. But while watching a laser-guided Wagner vine-planting machine, Hosmer liked what he saw so much he bought into the business being run by Ken Whitty. That was in the late 1990s, and Hosmer and Whitty’s business, Benchmark Custom Vineyard Planting, has continued to grow in the years since.

During the 2012 planting season, Hosmer said his company planted a little more than 200 acres in several states including Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania as well as New York’s Finger Lakes region. He also purchased a slightly used $75,000 Wagner machine from Germany to meet the demand for planting services.

While Hosmer enjoys success with his planting machines, which also have been embraced by the winegrowers of Europe, they have yet to catch on with western growers, who still plant with crews of laborers. “I can’t figure it out,” he said. “If you saw this thing work, you would say: ‘Why in the world would you plant by hand?’”

Technology also has improved how land is prepped for planting. The owners of Vibrosoiler, a system developed in Australia and brought to the United States a few years ago, promise a better option for getting a piece of land ripped and prepped for planting. When used with new grafted, semi-mature vines, the system could cut significant time between planting and harvest.

Quicker and more accurately
The machine Hosmer operates is guided by a laser to ensure a straight row, and the planting device deposits vines at regular intervals. As a tractor pulls the planter, a plow digs a trench for the young vines. Workers, sitting on the rear of the planter, feed vines to spring-loaded fingers that drop the plants into their assigned spots, and another plow fills in the trench.

On a good day, Hosmer said he can plant 5,000 vines. He said a typical planting job starts at about $1 per vine, and the land needs to be properly prepped. The machine self-levels and can plant almost anywhere accessible by a tractor.

Jan Waltz, owner of 2,500-case Waltz Vineyards & Winery in Manheim, Pa., said he’s contracted Hosmer’s services since 2000 after planting by hand for years. He said a planting job gets done quickly, and the uniform spacing makes other mechanized work such as harvesting, spraying and pruning easier. “You get nice, straight parallel rows that are great for any mechanization,” he said. And with planting done in just a few days, Waltz said his vineyard workers can start on other spring tasks sooner.

Another benefit, especially for growers in the East, is that clients have total control of graft height during planting. Waltz said his vineyard is vulnerable to hard eastern freezes, and a uniform graft height on the vines makes it much easier to complete hilling work in the fall. “I would highly recommend it, even if it’s just an acre of vines,” he said.

Wagner partners with another German supplier, Clemens Technologies, which also manufactures vine-planting machines. Clemens holds the U.S. distribution rights for Wagner, according to Heiko Beckers, Clemens’ U.S. sales manager.

Next generation guided by GPS
Beckers said Clemens has been producing planting machines for the past 20 years but just recently introduced GPS to improve planting accuracy. Machines like Hosmer’s require a laser guide to ensure a straight row. Because of the setup, Hosmer said he could only plant in one direction, as each row needs to be plotted before planting

With the GPS-guided system, Beckers said operators input the dimensions of the vineyard and its shape followed by the coordinates of the first and last vine in the first row. Planting the first row helps operators calibrate the machine. Once it’s set, Beckers said the operator just needs to set the row distance, width and vine spacing, and the machine is ready. The machine does require some training. “You’re planting to 1-inch accuracy, you have to understand it’s a complex machine,” he said.

The latest line of Clemens’ planters can plant up to 15,000 vines per day and come with optional equipment that can lay stakes, drip lines and plant each vine with a shot of water and fertilizer. Beckers said a grower could plant young vines and lay drip line the first year and then come back the next year to install trellising. “You can plant with three people what 30 could do by hand,” he said.

Hosmer watched a demonstration of Wagner’s GPS-guided machine and said it has great potential, but he found the vine spacing was not as accurate as he would expect. He added that the technology should improve in time. “It certainly is the future; there’s no question of that,” he said.

Manual labor still costs less
The Clemens machine costs around $200,000 and requires a 120hp tractor to pull it. Planting by hand is still cheaper, and it likely will stay that way until labor grows even more difficult to secure and more expensive.

“Planting just hasn’t been that great of a cost that there’s not much to save with it being mechanized,” said John Duarte, president of Duarte Nursery in Hughson, Calif.

He said growers of some orchard crops such as almonds have turned to mechanized planting, but it has not been adopted on the vineyard side. Culturally, Duarte said he knows the custom in California has been to install stakes and drip lines first, test them to make sure the irrigation system works and then go through with a crew to dig holes and plant vines at each stake.

Benjamin Kaesekamp, the production manager at Guillaume Grapevine Nursery in Knights Landing, Calif., said he’s watched planting machines operate in Germany, where he was struck by their accuracy. He said the machines’ planting mechanism also resulted in less “J” rooting. “Since labor will be getting more expensive in the future, California needs to adjust to more mechanization—and just like we are now harvesting more and more grapes by machine, it will only be a matter of time when these planting machines will be very common in California,” he said. “It will take some forward-thinking individuals to start with the machine, but once people recognize the benefits this will change the way we plant in California.”

One drawback, however is that the machines can only be used on bare soil without any existing trellis or irrigation system.

On the development side, Duarte said one of the “coolest” new technologies he’s seen is the Vibrosoiler machine used by California Ag Soilworks to rip land for planting. (See “From the Ground Up” in the May 2009 issue of Wines & Vines.) The company uses a patented system that was first studied by Sonoma County soil scientist Dr. Alf Cass, a former professor with the University of Adelaide, and then developed in Australia by Randal Tomich.

Tomich brought the technology to the United States in 2008 and partnered with John Crossland. As the owner of the vineyard management company Vineyard Professional Services, Crossland helps manage 3,000 acres in the Central Coast and is the former vice president of vineyard operations for Beckstoffer Vineyards, based in the Napa Valley.

Ag Soilwork’s system employs a parabolic shank with an attached wing that moves up and down via a hydraulic mechanism as the shank is pulled through the soil. The soil loosening is at about 4 feet deep, and cross ripping is no longer necessary. In about two passes, Crossland said the machine could break up the future soil row to full depth with lateral break out.

Crossland said the ripping machine is pulled at 4 mph by a heavy-duty Cat Challenger tractor guided by RTK GPS system that’s accurate to less than 1 inch. The machine also can incorporate soil amendments during a pass to essentially get a piece of land planting-ready far quicker. “We’re more effective, and then at the end of the day we save money,” he said.

Since 2008, Crossland said the company added a second machine. Last year they prepped 4,000 acres in California. The technology has been used for high-volume sites in the Central Valley and Central Coast as well as the Napa Valley.

The efficiency may make it cheaper to operate than standard rippers, but a grower still needs to pay to get the machine and tractor to his vineyard. Crossland said some growers have shared the cost of transport. Before any job, Crossland said his team needs to inspect the soil—preferably with a few pits—and also consult with a soil expert to prescribe any needed ripping amendments.

Ripping needs a little moisture
Traditional viticulture has called for soil to be as dry as possible prior to ripping, but “that actually does a great deal of damage to the soil structure,” Crossland said.

He said both his experience and academic research now indicate that soil preparation is more effective when there’s a fair amount of moisture present—or when it’s near the “plastic limit” (the moisture content where a thread of soil breaks apart at a diameter of 3 mm). With a fair amount of moisture, a clump of soil can be rolled into a ribbon and maintain its form. When the soil is moist, the ripper will break up the superstructure without pulverizing the soil into a powder, Crossland said.

The company also sells a smaller version of its Vibrosoiler that is designed to run between the rows of an established vineyard to break up compaction and improve water absorption. The machine is manufactured in Paso Robles, Calif.

Duarte said he worked with Crosslands for a trial using the nursery’s UberVine (a 42-inch bench-grafted grapevine) with the Vibrosoiler’s plant-preparation system, which can rip and mound a row while also incorporating soil adjustments. “We can really take advantage of that more sophisticated preparation with a vine that really gets up and goes and takes advantage of that soil when it’s perfectly fluffed,” he said.

The UberVine’s developed root system (the vine is grafted onto an extra-long rootstock cane) “really exploded into a perfect environment,” and Duarte said he’s optimistic that soil preparation with the Vibrosoiler could offset the “premium” cost of the UberVines by shaving the time it takes for a vineyard to mature. “We’ve had phenomenal results in terms of first-year growth,” he said.

Crossland confirmed that the UberVines demonstrated a “significant amount of growth” after being planted, and he believes they yielded up to a 3-ton crop during their second leaf.

He said he’s working with Duarte on another field trial to see if can more accurately confirm a correlation with quicker vine development and California Ag Soilwork’s ripping technology.

That study could be of great interest to growers looking for any edge to get vines producing quicker at a time when many are planting new vineyards or replanting old ones to keep up with the growing demand for wine. The changing market could also change minds about mechanizing other areas of vineyard development.

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