One of the vineyard manager's greatest resources for assuring a successful season is the volunteer picker. People express enthusiasm over the idea of being part of the harvest and part of the vintage. This phenomenon may not extend to the table and raisin grape industries. The need for special handling of fruit in those vineyards may require a professional. But pickers of wine grapes can be completely amateur and behave in an amateurish fashion, throwing grapes in a picking box and sometimes throwing them at each other. It is incumbent upon the grower to address certain considerations which will contribute to this festive atmosphere and keep his cadre of volunteers returning year after year.
If you were selecting a site and planning a vineyard to be served by a mechanical harvester you would keep the needs of the machine first and foremost in your mind. The machine would require that vineyard layout, trellising, training, canopy and floor management receive meticulous attention. But, if mechanization is not in the plan, the grower must address these and other vineyard characteristics from the perspective of the human machine he will be using in the harvest.
1. Trellising, pruning and training practices should provide a fruit zone about 1 to 1.5 meters (40" to 60") above grade. If the canopy is too low and inadequately supported, the purpose of the fruiting zone is defeated. The enthusiasm of a picker who has to stoop to work underneath an overhanging canopy will not last long. Fruit zone and canopy must be in harmony.
2. Grass in vineyard aisles should be mowed just prior to harvest. This obvious assist to the picker is often overlooked in vineyards with several varieties of grapes ripening at different times. Mowers are removed to permit use of tractors to move grapes and redistribute empty "lugs" (picking boxes). In the middle of the chaos of harvest, it is sometimes difficult to take the time to remount a mower and do the job, but aisles must be groomed for the harvest of each variety.
3. Pickers should not have to work among mulberry, sumac, morning glory, mare's-tail and other growth that seems to appear out of nowhere between veraison and harvest. Maintain a special watch for the less obvious intrusion of poison ivy and poison oak. Good vineyard floor management should continue right through the picking of the last variety.
4. Lugs and harvesting shears should be clean and in good condition. In a short time, grape juice left on lugs becomes tougher than varnish and serves as a great host for mildew. If your grapes go to a vintner, remind him that your pickers are potential customers and that a lug not cleaned immediately after it is emptied reflects back on his operation. In the vineyard, lugs should be adequately distributed in the area to be picked. This is basic picker logistical support and they will let you know in no uncertain terms when you are falling down on the job. Tell them to keep full lugs out of the aisles to permit equipment to pass through.
5. Vineyard management should at least do a walk-through of the picking area, thank the volunteers and make sure they're happy. Some of them want to talk about grapes and wine and they must be indulged. One grower I know uses a volunteer "picker coordinator" to make sure that picker support including coffee, water, etc. is available in the picking area.
6. Finally, providing the traditional harvest lunch is a must -even if all of the picking is accomplished in the morning. The pickers have been spread out over a large area and had little chance to get acquainted. Get them together in a comfortable spot and serve some good food. Friendships sometimes blossom. In France, they boast that picker marriages are not an infrequent byproduct of the vendange. In Maryland, we can make no such claim, but at least we cannot be blamed for a picker divorce (that we are aware of).
Maintain at least these standards of picker workplace conditions and you'll see familiar faces among your volunteers the following year.
|This picker also requires care and feeding, but it may be more efficient after lunch than the other type.|
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