TRAVERSE CITY — A dwindling labor pool and challenging packaging costs are prompting several northern Michigan winemakers to utilize innovative technologies in their vineyards.
“When I came here 30 years ago, there was little mechanization,” said Mark Johnson, winemaker at Chateau Chantel on Old Mission Peninsula. “Yet, most small farmers in Europe had it, even with as few as 10 or 20 acres.”
Wineries like Chateau Chantel, Good Harbor Vineyards, L. Mawby Vineyards and others are increasingly turning to machines and new packaging technologies to find efficiencies. In many cases, machines pulled by tractors are doing the work that, in the past, was done by humans. Examples include pre-pruners for trimming, shoot positioners, leaf pullers and hedgers. The use of the machines is a relatively recent development in the United States, the winemakers said.
Sam Simpson, who co-owns Good Harbor Vineyards in Leelanau County with sibling Taylor, is a recent convert to the new equipment. Last year they rented the equipment from Chateau Chantel. This year, they’ve not only purchased their own, but have also set up an agriculture management program allowing them to use their equipment on other vineyards and hop yards.
“Currently, we’re only running equipment on small vineyards who are using our full management services," Simpson said. “It’s a way for us to make use of the equipment.”
“It’s also a significant cost savings,” he said. “None of our clients will ever want to go back.”
Migrant workers are still a main source of labor for much of the work in the vineyards but that pool has shrunk for many reasons, said Johnson. One primary reason is the uncertainty of immigration legislation. Another is the increased demand for labor from more and more vineyards, Simpson said.
Both Johnson and Simpson agree the use of machinery has not caused layoffs.