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"We just couldn’t find people to farm": Vineyard mechanization in Missouri

“I think the labor shortage hit the Midwest before it hit this part of the country,” said Missouri vineyard director Andrew Meggitt, speaking to a crowd of winegrape growers in Sacramento. “We just couldn’t find people to farm and we needed to farm.”

That’s why Meggitt started mechanizing his vineyard, St. James Winery, more than a decade ago.

He wasn’t always a fan of mechanization.

“In the early days I wasn’t a proponent of this,” he said. “I used to stand there in the vineyard and argue with them all the time, and say we weren’t going to do it. Time heals all wounds—you get over it, you get over yourself… and the wine is better.”

Meggitt’s vineyard is in the middle of Missouri, 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.

“When I started in ‘02 we were at 60,000 cases,” he said. “This last year we were at 250,000 cases, so we’ve seen some pretty good growth.”

That means 2,200 tons of grapes, harvested from 185 acres spread over 14 miles.

In the beginning mechanization was tested against acres grown by hand—the work began in 2004 as part of a trial with Mizzou and the research ran until 2009.

In Missouri, winegrape canopies have to be open because of 100% humidity and 95 degree temperature.

“It’s like growing mangoes in a rainforest,” he said.

Meggitt’s vineyard was planted to be mechanized, and is now 13 years old, and just starting to have deer antler effect people are so fond of, he said.

“Based on the success of the trials, we really jumped into this as a company,” he told the growers. “We have labor problems like everyone else. It was almost impossible to find people to want to come to Missouri in the winter and prune—in 10 degree weather… You have to be a special kind of crazy to want to do that work.”

Some tasks, like bud rubbing, are still done by hand.

“What has happened is… our fruit got better, our wines got better, and I think it’s just down to consistency. We’re able to do it the same every year,” he said. “The fruit is coming in a lot lot cleaner than it was seven or eight years ago. We machine harvest and we run pretty hard, 24 hours a day. It’s really helped our quality.”

According to Meggitt, St. James winery wouldn’t have grown or maybe even still be around if it hadn’t mechanized winegrowing practices.

“Since we changed our systems and we had better fruit…we’ve been able to demand higher price points from fruit and make higher margins on these wines,” he said.

Eliot Caroom

Eliot wrote about AgTech, aerial images, and other farming topics for Ceres Imaging. His past work includes local newspaper reporting, oil market news, and covering sustainable investing.

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