Before we get started, no, no one is shooting any animals with lasers. Instead, wineries are experimenting with a new, humane method of dispersing crop damaging birds that, if effective, will change the game of how best to deal with the pests.
Since the beginning of agricultural history, farmers have fought to fend off all manner of creatures bent on destroying their crops. Vineyards, with a product that is attractively sweet and easy to pluck off the vine, are particularly vulnerable to birds. Because of this, technology to keep these birds away is a crucial component to growing grapes.
Everything from the classic scarecrow to sophisticated drones have been deployed, but always with mixed success. Deterrents such as disruptive sounds diminish in efficacy as birds get used to their presence. Once the deterrents become part of the normal landscape, they stop being useful. Other devices, such as nets, can be costly to buy and maintain and require a crew of people to deploy them and repair them, only for them to get in the harvester’s way in the Fall.
That’s where Holland-based Bird Control Group comes in. Using their Agrilaser Autonomic systems, a Sonoma vineyard is one of the first to try a 21st century solution to an age old problem. Using an 11-point questionnaire completed by the vineyard manager, a field technician uses Google Maps-powered proprietary software to program the lasers’ operating area and hours of operation, generally the hours around dawn and dusk. Once programmed, each of the units use their security camera-like heads to shoot a tennis-ball sized beam of laser light towards flocks of birds. Perceiving the light as a moving threat, the birds get spooked and the flock moves away from crops they’d otherwise damage. According to Bird Control Group, the high visibility, speed and randomness of the laser help keep birds from acclimating to this deterrent and ignoring it, as they would with other devices.
Due to the numerous rules and regulations surrounding lasers, there are multiple safety systems to avoid harm to the animals and prevent the lasers from being fired at roads and upwards towards planes. Also, because they are also most effective at dawn and dusk, it is relatively easy to schedule workers around, which minimizes the risk to worker eyesight.
Each unit is not cheap, about $10,000 new, but compared to the upwards of $25,000 it costs annually to maintain a netting system, the investment looks to be worth it. Factor in the fact that birds contribute an estimated $49.1 million dollars in damage to winegrapes annually for California, $12.9 million in Washington, $3.45 million in New York and $2.68 million in Oregon, and the return on investment for the lasers starts to look more and more attractive.
As of now, there is only one vineyard on the West Coast utilizing this system, with another test site in Massachusetts. These laser are already integrated into over 6000 other systems though, for farms of other soft fruits such as blueberries, as well as airports and factories, so the technology seems to be promising.
While this sci-fi alternative to scarecrows may seem far fetched, at Skolnik we remember when people felt the same way about our innovative stainless steel wine barrels. We value innovation in the wine industry and are excited to see where this technology can take winemaking and agriculture. Only time will tell if lasers are a good fit for vineyards, but if they prove to be effective, then perhaps we’ve found the 21st century version of the straw man after all.