By Elizabeth Klinge

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – Grapes are California’s third-largest crop, valued at nearly $6 billion a year. There’s growing concern this season that there may not be enough people to work in the fields, but those workers may not be needed much longer.

New research at UC Davis is showing robots can help replace manual laborers and even change the way wine tastes. California’s wine industry is threatened by pests, drought, and wildfires, but now a lack of labor is creating another worry for farmers.

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Fewer workers are available at a time when vineyards are growing larger.

“Our estimate is we have two-thirds less people working in wine grapes now,” said Prof. Kaan Kurtural, of the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Department.

So now more grape growers are turning to technology to harvest and maintain crops.

“The pressure is more intense than ever to provide more certainty through automation and robotics and artificial intelligence,” one researcher said.

UC Davis researchers are leading the effort to automate vineyards with robots.

“They are semi-autonomous, so we will set these things up and then a tractor driver pulls the machine, but now there are even tractors that can drive themselves,” Kurtural said.

Their study shows the technology has a higher up-front cost but becomes more economical after about two seasons.

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“We’re going from $1.20 to about 12 to 22 cents per vine,” Kurtural said.

While the new technology reduces the need for more manual labor, it also creates new high-wage jobs.

“You need very skilled people to operate these machines,” Kurtural said. “Jobs in agriculture will be lost, but the jobs that remain are going to be better paying requiring more skill.”

And there’s a surprising benefit: Research shows mechanically maintained crops come out tasting better.

“The new system entails different trellises so the vine is higher up off the ground, so it has better flavor, it has better color, which winemakers desire,” another researcher said.

“You’ll get a deeper richer sensation from these vines,” Kurtural said.

A taste of new technology is giving growers a glimpse of future farming.

“We stumbled into greatness, the quality is much much better,” Kurtural said.

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Much of the equipment is produced right here in California at factories in Woodland and Fresno.

Elizabeth Klinge