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The future of agriculture — in the making

Lodi playing pivotal part in a machine that may revolutionize how grapes are harvested — by cutting out hard labor

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Posted: Saturday, March 5, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 5:48 am, Mon Mar 7, 2011.

With the skill and precision of Edward Scissorhands, two robotic arms connected to pruners clip vines at LangeTwins Winery on Friday morning.

Completely guided with video cameras mounted on the front and a computer, the machine knows exactly how to trim the delicate vines.

While it still is in the prototype phase, the pruner could forever change grape farming because the vines will no longer need to be pruned by hand.

Winemakers would not have to hire workers every year to manually prune the vines, and the machine clips the vines uniformly, so that will improve wine quality, said Claude Brown, who invented the machine and owns Ag Industrial Manufacturing.

"You see a need and you go through hours of experience doing it, and you see where mechanization could help," Brown said.

About 10 people from different local wineries went to LangeTwins on Friday to watch the machine cut the vines and discuss how they could use it back in their own vineyards.

The pruner is programmed based on the type of vine and how the farmer wants it cut. The blue machine runs off electricity. A farmer can set it at the end of a row so it straddles the vine, and it scans the vine using its cameras. It then moves up down the row, snipping and pruning as it goes.

Brown has invented more than 100 different machines to help the agriculture industry. For this project, he teamed up with Vision Robotics Corporation to help create the machine.

The pruning machine should be on the market in August 2012, and will probably cost between $80,000 and $100,000, said Bret Wallach, founder and president of the robotics company.

The San Diego-based company tested the machine on dead grapevines in its parking lot. They brought the machine to Lodi at the beginning of February to start testing it on grapevines around town. Wallach said they are continuously making changes to the prototype, and once it is done it will be able to do about 8 feet per minute.

He envisions one person starting multiple machines on the vines, and then just moving them once they finish a row.

Denise Georgie, of Gallo Winery, agreed that the new machine would increase consistency.

Since wineries hire large crews, all of the pruning is slightly different because everyone has their own eye and interpretation, Georgie said.

"You need a lot of people compared to one machine. What you want is consistency," she said.

The LangeTwins, Vino Farms and Sutter Home are the three main investors in the technology. There also are investors in Australia, so the company plans to ship the machine over there to do more testing this summer.

Phil Lange, one of the vineyard managers, said it is important to find ways to keep costs down so that Lodi can keep producing wine that doesn't break the bank.

The winery hires workers for four months every year to prune by hand, and those costs always vary each year. With a machine, it would be a fixed cost.

"If we can make this work and it happens in Lodi, it will bring recognition, which Lodi really needs," he said.

Contact reporter Maggie Creamer at maggiec@lodinews.com. Read her blog at www.lodinews.com/blogs/citybuzz.

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