Surrounded by shiny new tractors, Carl Capps spends most days talking about horsepower, hydraulics and transmissions. He paid little attention to anti- and pro-immigrant-legalization activists who marched at the state Capitol.
Then the immigration debate came to him last fall, after he sold a quarter-million-dollar machine that harvests wine grapes—the first in the Willamette Valley.
The New Holland Braud grape harvester can do the work of 40 handpickers in a fraction of the time.
Suddenly, vineyard owners were calling Capps to schedule demonstrations, saying they couldn’t cope with worsening worker shortages—or immigration raids. Their concerns were heightened after a U.S. Senate immigration bill that would have offered legal status for up to 900,000 undocumented agricultural workers failed, and immigration officers detained nearly 200 workers at a Portland produce processing plant.
Oregonians for Immigration Reform, a restrictionist group, touted the European machine as a beacon of a future without illegal labor.
The high-tech machine—which uses “shaker rod” technology to coax grapes off the vine into molded silicon rubber collection baskets—may herald a future of all-mechanized agriculture.
Machine comes to Oregon
Often when Jim Ludwick, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, tried to change people’s minds about illegal immigration, they’d come back with the need for labor “that no one else wants to do.”
“They’d always want to talk about farmworkers,” Ludwick said. He’d tell them about California farmers who had mechanized lettuce harvesting and were using citrus pickers with infrared sensors to detect ripe fruit. “They didn’t buy it. There’s an aura about farming, and they like to think there are farmworkers out there.”
Then last fall, he read in a local farming newspaper about the New Holland Braud harvester at Evergreen Vineyards in McMinnville. The aviation giant, which has vineyards adjacent to its aviation museum—and a Spruce Goose wine label that honors its star attraction—bought the machine for the 2006 harvest.
It picked 3.5 tons of pinot noir grapes in 20 minutes with three workers, the Capital Press article said. Usually that would have taken 34 workers an hour.
Finally, Ludwick had an Oregon example to make his case. He began to tout the New Holland harvester in speeches, as well as to state legislators, members of Congress and radio talk-show hosts.
“This is what modern societies do,” he said. “They mechanize and wean themselves off cheap stoop labor.”
Wilhoit said Evergreen’s primary motivation was to pick grapes at night, when they are cool and will not ferment. Because of the machine’s speed, grapes spend little time sitting in bins before they’re whisked off to refrigeration.
“They never get warm once,” he said.
Evergreen still relies on handpicking, he said. “We love our workers, no matter what country they come from.”
Oregon’s farms too hilly
Though many California vineyards have entire fleets of harvesters, it’s unlikely Oregon will follow suit.
Unlike California’s hundreds of acres of flat vineyards, Oregon vineyards tend to be small operations on rolling hillsides, said Dick Shea, owner of Shea Vineyards in Yamhill County. Few can afford a six-figure piece of equipment, and the large, tall machines have typically not been stable on hills. Evergreen is more like a California vineyard, large and on a flat valley floor.
If machines were feasible and could produce the same quality of wine, Shea said, “I think everybody would prefer not to be worried about seasonal laborers. Inevitably there is not as much as you want, and it seems harder every year.”
Shea is also skeptical that a machine can handle a high-end wine grape delicately enough to measure up to hand labor. Even if a machine could pick that well, other jobs—particularly leaf removal to prevent mildew and expose grapes to more sunlight—still require hand labor.
Capps said New Holland has developed attachments for those tasks.