NZ Farmer - Automated tractors a 'game changer' for wine industry

Written by Chloe Ranford

Automated farming equipment could be a "game changer" for New Zealand's largest wine region. 

Marlborough vineyards can now employ autonomous vehicles to trundle around their fields, following a GPS-mapped route, performing tasks and collecting data.

Industry expert Paul Galletly said it was possible that, in future, the technology could muscle out vineyard workers.

Galletly worked for John Deere tractor dealers Drummond and Etheridge, who hosted a viticulture event in Blenheim last week.

While their farming equipment was not autonomous at present, it was auto-tracking, and would soon be expanded to determine grape yield, he said.

"At the moment you'd still need someone to turn the wheel and you'd still need someone to keep an eye on the implement," Galletly said.

But Horticulture New Zealand senior business manager John Seymour said there was still an "open debate" as to whether automated machines would replace vineyard workers.

"New Zealand is already short on labour workers, so the machines could pick up work that was unable to be done at the moment," Seymour said.

"If you don't have a machine or person to do a job, then you lose productivity. So, here, automation is a plus."

Seymour said on the other end of the scale, if a machine did the work of five people, then that could be five jobs lost.

"But another way of looking at that is those five people could then go work in other parts of the operation," he said. 

"Also a factor is the increase in worker [pay], which could be a tipping point for employees, as labour cost is getting so high that we will need to turn to automation to save money. 

"But most growers don't know how to compare the cost of labour per hectare versus the cost of automation per hectare."

Seymour said it was more probable that automated farming equipment would fill 

vacancies that were unable to be filled, rather than replace people.

"There was a lot of assumptions that laptops and computers would replace people several years ago, and that we would move to paperless, but here we are, with just as much paper as ever," he said.

"It's hard for a machine to work out whether one patch of grapes is better than another patch of grapes.

"It's easy to get a machine that can pick, but vineyards need more than that."

Automated farming technology was already big in farming areas south of Marlborough, such as in Canterbury.

Wine Marlborough general manager Marcus Pickens said the technology could not come soon enough.

"Marlborough has an acute job shortage," Pickens said. "At the moment there are 50 to 60 jobs permanently available right now, and it's not even harvest season. Any innovation is welcome."

Pickens said he had no concerns for the future of viticulture.

"A job shortage is not going to happen overnight, all because of automated machines."