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Lodi-made machines rumble through vineyards as grape harvest begins

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Posted: Saturday, August 24, 2013 12:00 am

The grapes will wait no longer. The summer sun awakened the sugars resting inside each berry. “The grapes are calling for it. We have to pick tonight,” said Craig Ledbetter, vice president of Vino Farms. “By the look of it, we’ve got a bigger crop than we expected.”

It is time, and the Ledbetter 3 is ready.

It is a wondrous machine hand-crafted by the tinkerers and craftspeople at Ag Industrial Manufacturing in Lodi.

Standing 12 feet tall, it waits, its engine grumbling, its lights blasting across acres upon acres of moonlit green, a modern marvel ready to shake the grapes out of Ledbetter’s vineyard.

Tonight is the culmination of months of tending, pruning, fertilizing, testing.

Tonight, after weeks of careful assembly, the machine is released.

It could clog up with grapes. The picking head might snap a vine. Or the engine might not turn over. There could be hours of repairs by flashlight if the machine fails.

Paychecks, winemaker relations and next year’s wine inventory are all riding on this harvester rolling through the vineyard tonight, and picking these grapes right now.

Birthing the machine

The towering green monster was constructed just weeks before by Paul Burkner, Claude Brown and the team at AIM. They’ve been making top-of-the-line harvesters for 20 years. Today, 76 of them are rolling through the thousands of acres of winegrapes surrounding Lodi, under management of crews trying to get all the grapes off the vine before their flavor is lost to the sun.

Building the harvester takes 10 weeks, $315,000 and the care and knowledge of welders, steel cutters, fabricators and electricians at AIM. Their Beckman Road shopyard is crammed with vast construction bays, cutting machines, laser tables and robots to manufacture the precise materials that go into each harvester.

Some pieces, like the rubber tires, are shipped in. But every strong metal bar or whirring fanblade is built on-site.

Burkner keeps his company moving on a strict schedule to complete each project, but it’s impossible to predict when the grapes will be ready to pluck off the vine. The last week of July is a rush to get the harvester out to Vino Farms well ahead of the key moment: When Ledbetter walks out among the rows of a vineyard plot, checks a cluster of fruit, and says it’s time.

At AIM, the machine had been birthed. At that stage, its builders knew the engine ran, the hydraulics were online, and the wheels moved when they should. But several more parts and pieces were needed to get Ledbetter’s new harvester, coded as number 2013075, dressed out for duty.

In the vineyard

In a shadowy vineyard off Jack Tone and Liberty Roads, the full moon shone down on a brand new grape harvester ready to churn through dozens of acres of Chardonnay grapes.

To justify using a harvester, a grower would need about 250 acres of vines. Vino Farms harvests 5,000 acres in Lodi and Clarksburg, and they have seven harvesters to get the work done. Three are from AIM, who build machines wide enough to fit over the expansive trellis systems.

A team of 12 workers and two tractors towing gondolas follows each harvester.

The gondolas serve double duty as measuring cups, each holding six tons of grapes. That’s enough juice to make 5,000 bottles of wine. It’s not precise enough to sell by the measurement, but it’s enough to keep track.

Tonight, the driver on the Ledbetter 3 is Ruben Rios, a man who has worked 35 harvests and knows how to run this kind of machine.

He is ready and relaxed in the driver’s seat.

Ledbetter said he stays away from that job.

“You couldn’t pay me enough money to drive a harvester,” he said. “I’d do a lot of damage. I have zero intention of doing so.”

He did keep a careful eye on Rios as the driver lined up the 2013075 with a lush row of Chardonnay and settled the machine above it. The gondola was pulled up in the next row, with a tractor driver ready to keep pace.

The harvester rumbled forward, then backed up on a signal from manager Shannon Lin. Rios flipped a switch. The beast roared to life and began to devour the vine.

The picking head grasped the sturdy vine with a pair of fiberglass arms and swung back and forth at 5,500 RPMs. Grapes were shaken from the plant, leaving nothing but the spare skeleton of the grape stem, known as a rachis, clinging to the vine.

Green debris flew out of the blower covers, littering the vineyard floor with organic confetti. The berries zoomed up the chassis, behind Rios, and past a woman frantically pulling leaves from the conveyer belt. They shot across the next vine on the gondola arm and settled into the moving bucket.

Harvest was on.

Parts and pieces

The machine is fabricated in a metalworking shop east of Highway 99 in Lodi. Brown, Burkner and their team of workers build each piece out of raw materials, from something as intricate as the fanblades for the trio of debris blowers to the entire 10 feet tall steel frame.

Harvesters rely on several yards of durable white plasticized conveyor belts to move the grapes from the level of the vines all the way to a large gondola bucket. Canvas drapes on either side keep the flying fruit under control.

Two subframes, measuring 5 by 14 feet in length, are built and painted in an adjoining bay. Workers install safety rails to the deck and weld on the ladder.

Looking up at the underside of the chassis reveals a web of green pipe and black hose cross connecting the engine and hydraulic power out to the wheels and the picking head.

Overhead, shatterproof LED lights are installed to highlight the driver’s seat, the sorting cage and the grapes below.

Safety glass is a must. The picking head swings to and fro with such force that the entire 11-ton chassis trembles.

But that part is the most essential. Without the highly technical picking head, harvest is impossible. The entire machine is simply its platform.

AIM makes the parts: the long arms that grasp the grapevine, the shaking mechanism that swings those ski-like arms back and forth and the body to secure the 500 pound device to the harvester chassis. It takes a forklift to install it.

Controlling this device, able to shake a vine hard enough to remove grapes but gently enough not to fracture the plant’s woody trunk, is tricky work.

There’s one last step before the 2013075 is trucked to Vino Farms. Workers load the machine up on blocks to check steering alignment and wheel movement. If this isn’t precisely correct, the machine could knock itself over on uneven ground.

“All 22,000 pounds are awfully hard to pick back up,” said Burkner.“When it falls over, it looks like a dead elephant.”

‘Out here all night’

Rios was chugging along down the row. The vineyard floor was dotted with leaf bits and a few stay berries in his wake. The vine looked like a swarm of birds flew up for a feast. But 100 yards from the starting line, the harvester stopped.

Ledbetter eyed the static machine from his place at the end of the row. He was only meant to see the team get started, then he could head home to bed. Up since 2 a.m., this was no time for a malfunction.

There was a clog in the cross conveyor, blocking the fruit from moving on to the sorting belt. With such a thick, healthy vine, there was too much foliage to funnel though the vines at once. What seems like a blessing can be trouble for a harvester trying to make good time.

“Damn,” Ledbetter said. “We’re gonna be out here all night. Shannon, see if you can get some people out.”

He bounced the head of a black metal flashlight against his knee in frustration, waiting for 2013075 to get a move on. He knew there would be more stops unless there was a way to pull the big leaves out before they ride up to the cross conveyor.

“We’re never going to get done,” he said.

Lin placed a call to Ledbetter’s labor contractor. Two extra workers were sent out to pull leaves from the back of the harvester before the grapes made it up the flight conveyors. It means hours of walking and standing in the dusty juicy mess kicked up by the harvester.

“It’s not a fun job. But this has to get done tonight,” Ledbetter said.

From the road, the Ledbetter 3 is a UFO hovering over the vineyard, eating up a summer’s worth of future wines. To the men on the ground and the winemakers waiting back at home base, it’s their livelihood. The work went on until 2:30 a.m. Weary workers were glad to go home, clean up and get some sleep.

That’s a feeling Burkner shared when he saw the 2013075 leave AIM’s lot on July 30.

“It’s a rewarding experience,” he said. “I don’t know all the right words, but that cuts right to the quick. It’s rewarding to see something we created go out the door. That’s why we’re in the business.”

Not that there’s time to rest. Three new orders have come in for next season’s harvesters.

“There’s a lot of new plantings,” said Burkner. “People realize that if they plant grapes, they gotta have something to harvest with.”

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at sarap@lodinews.com.

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