Electric tractors help vineyards fight climate change
When you visit wineries this year, take a look around the vineyards. If you see a tractor going through the vine rows, listen closely. You may not hear the chug-chug of a diesel engine, but instead the quiet whir of an electric motor. The electric vehicle revolution has reached the vineyard. Late last year, a company called Monarch Tractor rolled its first vehicles off an assembly line in Livermore, Calif. Monarch was founded in 2018 and tested its prototype vehicles at Wente Vineyards in the Livermore Valley. The company attracted more than $170 million in venture capital and won a bunch of awards for coolest ag tech gizmos. Its new MK-V autonomous tractor is now being made available to vineyards, orchards and other farms on the West Coast and Southeastern U.S. Theres a waitlist for the rest of the country, because demand is high. Like other electric vehicles, electric tractors are about fighting climate change by cutting our carbon footprint. Monarch estimates each of its EV tractors accounts for 14 passenger vehicles taken off the roads, in terms of emissions. Their impact pardon the pun may be even greater. Or less, depending on your perspective. Advocates say EV tractors should lead to less herbicide use, increased productivity and improved worker safety. This is the missing link in our agricultural systems, says Carlo Mondavi (of the famous winemaking family), a co-founder and chief farming officer of Monarch Tractor. Hes quick to point out the company is named for the monarch butterfly, which has become endangered since agricultural pesticide use increased, starting in the 1970s, the company says. Until now, Mondavi argues, doing right by the environment has been expensive. To farm organically, you have to make more passes with the tractor to mow or apply sprays that dont last as long as synthetic chemicals, Mondavi says. Its cheaper and easier to use Roundup once to eliminate weeds. But the electric tractors will save on fuel and maintenance costs, they are lighter than most tractors, and the self-driving capability cuts down on labor costs as well. For the first time, whats best for the planet is best for the bottom line, Mondavi says. The MK-V has full self-driving capability, as vine rows are easier than city streets to navigate. Since it is driver optional, the MK-V can be programmed to perform vineyard tasks and monitored remotely by a controller using a smartphone or tablet. It collects crop data that can be used for real-time adjustments to its tasks or long-term planning and yield estimates. Its drive train offers 40 horsepower in continuous action and can increase to 75 horsepower for short-term tasks. Constellation Brands, the drinks giant whose wine brands include The Prisoner, Robert Mondavi, Mount Veeder Winery and many others, purchased the first six MK-Vs. Among other early adopters was Coastal Vineyard Care Associates, a Santa Barbara County-based firm that manages more than 5,000 acres of premium wine grapes in Californias Central Coast region. Were really excited about these tractors, says Domenick Buck, the companys director of coastal support services. For cutting fuel costs and reducing our carbon footprint and greenhouse-gas emissions, this is the easiest box to check. Were moving more toward organic and sustainable farming, and away from using herbicides, he adds. These tractors are good at mowing and under-vine cultivation. Buck was especially keen about the potential increase in productivity at a time of rising costs and competition for labor among businesses. A normal eight-hour shift runs from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., but these tractors can go 13 to 15 hours on a charge, he explained. We just train the tractor to know what it needs to do, and it doesnt take breaks or lunch. While he doesnt expect to be laying off his workers, the tractors help at a time of rising wages and worker shortages. The Monarch cant do everything. Californias record-setting rainy winter kept vineyard work at a standstill for weeks, as even a lighter EV tractor can get stuck in mud. Also, the MK-V may not be suitable for all terrain or tasks. We have some vineyards with very steep slopes that require special tractors with treads and higher horsepower, Buck says. And if were going to be doing heavy ripping ... Id use diesel, but for spraying, harvest and hauling grapes back to the winery, the electric is ideal. For Mondavi, years of drought, wildfires and this winters rains highlight the urgency of climate change. Supply chain issues and inflation due to the pandemic and the war in Ukraine increase the economic pressure on farmers. Electric tractors such as the Monarch may be able to help on both fronts.