Vineyard is the crop that uses third-party services the most because of the diversity and complexity of campaigns
Viticulture is the agricultural activity with the highest degree of establishment of service companies in Spain due to the diversity and complexity of the tasks carried out throughout the campaign, which fill the calendar month by month with different activities related to soil management, prevention of climate risks, preparation and care of the plant, or harvesting.
The required specialization, the complexity and cost of many of the equipment that are incorporated, and the difficulties to find all the required manpower at the most critical times make winegrowers of any level, be smaller family farms or medium-large farms linked to wineries, seek throughout the year the support of a wide range of emerging companies, some at the local level and others open to regional markets, national and even international, which provide them with labor, perform mechanical work, or support them in the collection and management of data at different times of cultivation, making very important progress the implementation of digitization in this sector.
Two centuries of viticulture that now need the addition of many companies every year
Among all those winegrowers, as a significant example that allows us to make a review of that progressive implantation of service companies in the Spanish vineyard, we visited Bodegas Menade, of the Sanz family, a series of winegrowers with more than two hundred years of experience in the production area of Rueda, which has extended its range also to that of Toro and who currently cultivate more than 200 hectares in various municipalities of Valladolid.
Marco Sanz, responsible for viticulture in the winery, assures that at the moment almost all the work of the vineyards is developed with external service companies, because it is impossible to have a team that covers all the needs, which are very varied throughout the year and sometimes require technical means and preparation which are not feasible for a single holding. Three tractors work permanently, one of which acts as a manager, two other operators who perform maintenance on the trellis or drip, and a technician who performs field checks and helps to apply on the spot the information generated. For everything else, from pruning to harvesting, someone from outside comes with their own people and/or equipment.
The support tasks of these companies vary according to the agronomic calendar. One of the busiest periods comes at the end of winter, with dry pruning, for which some companies in the area are contacted, which will be the ones who hire and coordinate the crews both for Menade and for many other vineyards in the area. Also the green pruning, in the last part of the spring, requires a significant volume of labor that manage those same companies. In the middle of both, the wires are lowered and raised to adjust to the growth of the branches, also intensive work on operators.
In all these processes, there is a growing shortage of staff, which adds a lot of uncertainty to the planning of tasks, often making it difficult to perform them at the time and in the way that the winegrower considers most convenient, which also fosters a growing competition among wineries to have such staff. Pruning, in particular, is one of the most complex tasks of the year, which affects both production and the development and survival of the plant, so all winegrowers would like to make them highly prepared staff and, if possible, the same campaign, says Marco Sanz, but this is very difficult because the coordinators of the crews themselves have trouble maintaining the workers year after year, since they are often emigrants, and often with work difficulties.
One of the alternatives to solve this shortage of workers, in which service companies also have an important role, is the increasing mechanization of all activities, adds the head of viticulture in Menade: «Every time a machine appears that allows us to reduce staff we are interested in it, we will see field demonstrations, we test it, and if we discover that it can be useful we buy it or buy it from any of the service companies we hire».
That, he said, «forces us to prepare each campaign the vineyard to incorporate that machinery. And these are changes that will be constant in the coming years, because it seems clear that the problem of labor is going to increase every day. But we are confident that the technology will advance quickly to offer us alternatives, as happened in the vintage, which a few years ago was one of our biggest concerns».
In the case of pruning, comments Marco Sanz, it does not seem that there will be valid solutions in the short term, but for many other tasks yes: «In fact, in the last year, we have brought a machine that takes your sticks after pruning. We are also testing options for handling the wires, which are replaced by a rope that is placed autonomously and automatically. And we will see these days equipment that eliminate weeds between lines with electric shocks, to reduce the use of herbicides and working hours. The idea is that everything that can mechanize we will mechanize».
Once the green pruning is done, the work of external companies is reduced until the harvest, but they are still necessary. One of the activities that the largest vineyards usually outsource is the application of phytosanitary, which is becoming more sophisticated in recent years with the incorporation of precision systems and the use of drones. In the case of Menade, they produce in organic and these tasks are minimal, with specialized products, not chemical, so they are usually executed by the tractors of the winery with the home equipment.
Digitisation is one of the areas where more external support is needed
In addition to the fieldwork, another aspect that has been outsourced in Menade is digitization, which in a few years has become crucial for the correct management of the vineyard. «You have to collect a lot of data and manage them well, so as not to work blindly and make the most correct decisions at the most opportune time, and you can only do that with digital tools,» says Marco Sanz. The necessary equipment is composed of weather stations in all plots, and various probes in strains `control to control various aspects such as humidity… Sometimes flights are made with drones that make maps to collect information in real time.
All this data is received by a specialized company that processes it and makes it available to the staff of the winery according to their needs. They are data related to the thermal integral, water inputs, evapotranspiration, the progress of maturation, soil quality, fertilization needs, disease evolution, the presence of sick feet…
In addition, they also manage a personalized app, developed by a specialized company that allows them to track the condition of the vineyard and the equipment of the plots, monitor incidents and their resolution, organize the schedule of tasks for each person, control how they run… And all the information collected is stored in a database of its own, which avoids the loss of information, orders the development of activities and makes it possible to make comparisons at different times of the campaign or with respect to previous campaigns.
At the end of the crop cycle comes the time of harvest, which is another task in which the use of labor and external equipment covers 90% or 100% of the needs, although under the technical supervision of the winery, Marco Sanz said. The crop monitoring information that accumulates throughout the season allows to decide the optimal point for the harvest, and at that time, in vineyards such as those of Menade, The harvesting machines of specialized companies that make the mechanical collection 100% enter. If necessary, the staff of the farms carries out the transport of the grapes to the winery. In other vineyards this work is also carried out by the companies that carry out the harvesters.
The type of companies that provide all these services to the vineyard is very varied. Mechanical services and fieldwork are carried out mostly by local companies, which when they need staff have to go almost exclusively to emigration. Although, in the case of the harvest, local companies look for the complement of machines from other areas, in which the collection closes earlier. In digital and more specialized jobs, companies tend to be regional, national or international, often operating in diverse sectors and have vineyards or agriculture as an area of activity.
Tomás Postigo: «The current situation of the labor market makes the indirect hiring of the labor force more interesting»
Tomás Postigo is one of the most recognized winemakers and winemakers with more experience in the DO Ribera del Duero. After a career of more than 20 years and different stages in Bodegas Protos and Pago de Carrovejas, in 2008 he starts a new project and creates a winery in which he works with his four children in the town of Peñafiel in Valladolid. It also produces wine from the Verdejo variety in the DO Rueda, where it is supplied with grapes obtained by winegrowers from the area of Nieva (Segovia). For his winery in Peñafiel where he manages 25 hectares of his own vineyard, Tomás Postigo outsources much of the necessary work throughout the year. » Normally we outsource the work related to winter pruning, green pruning, manual weeding, skimming and harvesting, which we carry out completely manually even in the trellis vineyard». Regarding the reasons why it does not directly hire qualified personnel for these tasks, the coastal winemaker notes that «The current situation in the labour market makes the indirect hiring of the workforce more interesting and all the formalities are done through specialized companies».
Regarding the equipment and technology needs, Postigo states that it contracts the machinery service with tractor driver for the work with intercepas and the clearing of vegetable covers. In your case you prefer stability and not changing provider in this type of services. » We always work with the same companies in the area of Peñafiel and Pesquera de Duero, they are close and reliable for us». Regarding the implementation of precision agriculture in the vineyard, Bodega Tomás Postigo is considering making an investment with the aim of improving decision-making. » We want to invest in sensors installed on the farm and in the use of satellite images to obtain more accurate information about what happens in the vineyard». In his opinion, drones «have gone out of fashion» and now it is the information provided by satellites that is «most valuable» to predict what will happen and which «allows you to anticipate problems before they happen». Aspects such as soil moisture, meteorological data, the degree of stress of the plant or irrigation and fertilizing needs are the parameters to be monitored to «preserve the quality of the grape» in the face of any unforeseen event.
Viñas del Vero, the most important winery of the DO Somontano also subcontracts service companies
The winery Viñas del Vero is established in Somontano at the end of 1986 with the acquisition of 550 hectares of land in Barbastro and other nearby towns. After replanting the land with vineyards of the traditional varieties of the region -Tempranillo, Moristel, Grenache and Macabeo-, along with others of different origins -Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir-, brings to the market the first wines in the spring of 1990. Later, in 2008, the Aragonese winery became part of González Byass. Currently, Viñas del Vero is the first winery of the Somontano denomination for its volume and has one of the largest vineyards in Spain, being one of the wineries of reference both for its technology and sustainability and for the style of its wines. In fact, it participates together with the CSIC and the University of Zaragoza in the European Life Rewind Project, to develop an electric car adapted to hydrogen, germ of a future tractor to work in the vineyards.
Regarding the hiring of service companies by Viñas del Vero, Sergio Torres, director of viticulture at the winery, confirms that they employ them in several jobs throughout the entire vine growing cycle. » Initially, specialized companies were hired to carry out the new plantations, both to plant and to install the trellis and to place the irrigation infrastructure. The phytosanitary treatment service is contracted almost entirely. Part of the annual tasks of pruning, green pruning, vegetation management, etc., are carried out through service companies -around 40% of them. Finally, the mechanized harvest is made entirely through service companies,» says Torres. The reason for hiring you have to look at working efficiency in a short space of time. » The treatment was done with own personnel and machinery, adds the technician, but the external service is able to do the treatment more effectively, because they have better machinery with high purchase value, and we ensure a shorter execution time, which is fundamental to pest control».
Also, a company as focused on sustainability as Viñas del Vero, contracted at the time the installation of several agrometeorological stations and, periodically, contracts services of companies that interpret images obtained with drones or satellites, to make vineyard management as natural and efficient as possible.