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AgTech initiatives a growing force

RD&A News | December 2021
16 Dec 2021
tagged with AgTech
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A tech-revolution is emerging in one of Australia’s most historic wine regions – the Grampians. 
Ben Thomson of Best’s Wines is a part of a growing number of producers in the region that are working with various technologies to extract the maximum value from their fruit and aid in the premiumisation of the region’s wine in the process. 

By his own accounts, Ben has always been ‘a bit of a thinker.’

“I ponder on how things work and how I can make them work better, faster or more efficiently,” said Ben, who runs Best’s Wines and Stressless Harvesting contracting in the Grampians region. 

Ben is also enthusiastic about the potential new technologies are providing to Australian viticulture and in sharing this with other producers. He recently hosted Wine Australia’s first AgTech and Innovation Day at Best’s Sugarloaf Vineyard. 

More than 30 growers attended the day, exploring and watching demonstrations of new innovations including variable rate spray technology, auto steering for harvesters, chemical free undervine options and technologies for soil health management. 

The technologies demonstrated are those in use at Best’s vineyards. 

Ben’s contract harvesting business, Stressless Harvesting, worked in partnership with Precision Technology to develop an auto steer for grape harvesters. Traditionally, harvesters follow the A-B line, but Ben has helped to develop an auto-correct system that can steer off the pendulum of the picking head – making it perfect for both straight and curved rows.

GPS receivers attached to the harvester communicate with larger regional GPS systems and map both the angle of the harvesting machine and how straight it is driving. If the row goes off the A-B line the system beeps, the operator takes their hands off the wheel and the auto-corrector kicks in, pulling the harvester to the left or right as directed.

Ben says the main benefit he has noticed after trialling the system across a number of vineyards in SA and Victoria is that it dramatically reduces driver fatigue.

“Instead of quickly glancing back you can look back for 20 seconds; it gives you a lot of time to notice other things on the vineyard.”

A second piece of technology Ben is trialling is the Smart Apply canopy sprayer system by Smart Guided Systems. The technology is an extension of a previous project Pesticide Adjusted for the Canopy Environment (PACE) system funded by Wine Australia and the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment as part of its Rural R&D for Profit program.

He believes it will be a gamechanger – and a first in Australia.

“For years we’ve sprayed fungicide at a blanket rate, assuming that if a row has a two-metre canopy at the beginning of the row, for example, it must have a two-metre canopy at the end of the line and all the way in between. But often it might be a three-metre canopy at the end, not two, and you’re spraying ratio is now out of whack.”

The system uses LiDAR to calculate the size of the vine canopy and adjusts the rate of spray accordingly . 

LiDAR is a laser scanning method that builds 3D models of real-world environments, in this case, canopies, berries and vineyard infrastructure. These laser scanners can be mounted on vineyard equipment and scan in real-time, which informs the sprayer on the size of the canopy, and the required chemical application to adequately cover the vines.

“It not only saves the environment, but it is better on the pocket too,” he said.

Ben is one of many grape growers with sustainability, soil health and environment front-of-mind when considering when, and how much, to spray chemicals to manage vineyard diseases. Technologies that enable more thoughtful chemical applications are enabling more sustainable viticultural practices, while managing the bottom line through more optimised chemical usage.

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This content is restricted to wine exporters and levy-payers. Some reports are available for purchase to non-levy payers/exporters.