The current harvest-season in the Cape winelands once again has the pink liberal segment of the wine commentator community bemoaning those pesky South African farmers who are using mechanical grape harvesters instead of manual labour. And although figures are not available, it can safely be assumed that the majority of the Cape’s wine grapes are now harvested by machine – Northern Cape excluded as the trellising systems up there are not yet conducive to mechanical picking.
Although a gleaming three-meter high metallic Braud harvester droning through the vineyards might not be as aesthetically pleasing and heart-warming as the sight of a horde of smiling, sweaty workers deftly removing purple bunches with their secateurs, the move to mechanical picking is a no-brainer.
Farming is a business. Already squeezed from all corners in a cut-throat market as well as sets of costly regulatory compliances, any farmer worth his or her salt is going to take measures required to be competitive and efficient. And if this entails employing a machine to harvest 120 tons a day instead of 250 workers to accomplish the same task in the same amount of time, well, the term no-brainer comes to mind.
The other benefit of mechanical harvesting is that the farmer can have a machine rolling at 1.30am, ensuring cool, fresh grapes reach the winery. In my days as cellar-hand in the 1980s – pre-mechanical harvesting – the loads of Chenin Blanc and Cinsaut would at 14:00 already be fermenting in their bins under the hot Boland sun. With a machine you can have your daily quota of fruit in the cellar at noon.
Judging by the number of machines I encounter on my journeys through the winelands, the tide has turned irreversibly in favour of mechanical harvesting. And those thinking that it is only big co-ops who are using these for the making of volume, cheap wines…..forget it. An increasing number of estates are getting behind the wheel and shall continue to do so as the abilities of these machines improve. For example, sorting of berries is now able to be done by the harvester in the vineyards, eradicating the need for further sets of costly hands and eyes in the winery.
Those aforementioned pinkos getting all choked-up by the job losses this move to mechanisation causes, will do well to remember that harvest-time in the Cape is only three months long. Grape harvesting has thus never been a source of sustainable employment. The advent of the modern wine production era, which only just dawned on South Africa 20 years ago, can surely not be blamed for rural poverty. The answer lies in deeper-rooted efforts to mentor and to uplift so as to get people out of the cycle of generational dependency on menial farm-labour and into more dignified levels of employment in an industry with yet-unfathomed opportunities.
Liberal-hearted bleating for the status quo is nothing more than a plea for the perpetuation of a vicious circle which surely has to come to an end.
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