Small players the big winners for tomorrow’s vineyard

PICTURE THIS: AN ordinary vineyard, plus a few poles with built-in cameras and solar panels to provide power. There are less people working on the ground. Instead they're busy occupying an operations centre, controlling the spraying, pruning and harvesting, and integrating the data within an advanced logging system. There's even a shade complex set up for heatwave events.
If you've managed to visualise this image, then you've successfully seen into the future - the vineyard of the future, 20 years from now.
That's according to University of Adelaide professor Stephen Tyerman. Together with viticulture lecturer Dr Sigfredo Fuentes, Tyerman is spearheading a project, aptly called the Vineyard of the Future (VOF).
The project will see the establishment of a 1ha vineyard that will serve as a testing ground for various research projects that will provide grapegrowers with adaptive solutions to climate change.
Funded by the University's Waite Research Institute, the VOF will be based at the Waite Campus in Adelaide, where the main focus will be on monitoring vine performance to understand vine behaviour under increased carbon dioxide and heat.
'The system is designed to accommodate a range of projects that require continuous monitoring of vine performance, such as growth, leaf responses and transpiration rates. However the main project is to continuously observe the vines during potentially unfavourable weather events, particularly heatwaves,' Tyerman told Grapegrower & Winemaker.
'To adapt to climate change we need a complete picture of how the vine is responding to climate variables and soil conditions at any particular time. This is relevant to the predicted, more frequent high temperature events and reduced supply of water.
'Continuous monitoring systems can provide us with needed information about potential impacts of climate change on grapevines.'
The motivation behind the project was first realised after the release of The Garnaut Report, which indicated the need for the Australian wine industry to adapt to the impacts of climate change in order to maintain its competitiveness well beyond the mid-twentieth century.
'All growers are facing cost pressures. We believe that some of our techniques to be trialled in the VOF might reduce costs for growers and improve operational procedures and accuracy,' Tyerman said.
He said the integration of technology and data would be pivotal in addressing the complexity needed for innovation.
'This will be achieved through the development and deployment of an Advanced Integrated Vineyard Monitoring and Logging System (AIVMLS), initially as a proof of concept,' he said.
'The AIVMLS provides an integration of technologies monitoring the major components of the soil-vine-atmosphere continuum, including real-time measurements of growth, plant health, water use and berry quality. It is designed so that technological components can be added as further research investment is achieved and as a test bed for developing technologies from our commercial partners.'
If Tyerman's visualisation of what a vineyard will look like in 20 years turns out to be correct, there will be some happy smaller wineries.
'The cost is not high. In fact, the imaging systems are the same as the security camera systems that might be set up around a winery, ' Tyerman said.
'Our pilot system will cost less than $200,000 and this incorporates technology that might not be required for a more practical system in the industry.'
What is more likely to stress smaller players is the high labour costs in Australia, he said. That's where the benefit of the VOF comes in.
'The VOF may be a way to employ more people, with better monitoring skills, with a lower total wage bill. It is analogous to the mining companies having remote controlled trucks at their mining sites,' he said.
The VOF is expected to be in operation for the coming season, at least in rudimentary form, and some PhD programs will use it immediately.

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