Sunday, 16 June 2024 13:25

WinePro: Amping up ideas at expo

Written by  Sophie Preece
Prospr is one of the autonomous tractors on the floor at WinePro. Photo Credit: Jim Tannock Prospr is one of the autonomous tractors on the floor at WinePro. Photo Credit: Jim Tannock

The complete electrification of horticulture, viticulture and farming is inevitable, says Mike Casey from his Central Otago cherry orchard, which runs on sunshine and sells power back to the grid.

With the “plummeting” price of solar systems and batteries, electrification is an economic “slam dunk” in his industry, “and if it is for cherry farming it almost certainly will be for viticulture as well,” says Mike, one of the speakers at the upcoming WinePro expo in Blenheim.

WinePro is on in from June 25 to 27, with an exhibitor area of 70 suppliers, science providers and startups, a conference programme with more than 21 expert speakers and panelists, a Women in Business breakfast blending old and new wine world business practices, and a Dragon’s Den investor event to amp up emerging innovations. Wine Marlborough General Manager Marcus Pickens says Mike, who is part of the not-for-profit Rewiring Aotearoa, is part of an impressive lineup of conference speakers, including climate expert Dr Jim Salinger, (Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year 2024), New Zealand Story’s David Downs, BERL’s Amanda Read, social scientist Professor Paul Spoonley, and Simplicity’s Sam Stubbs. “The conference has been developed around a theme of Innovate, Elevate, Celebrate, and we have experts tackling everything from climate change to the circular economy, electrification to artificial intelligence, vineyard development to autonomous tractors, labour to leadership, and from New Zealand’s changing demographic to its ‘superpower’ brand.” The session themes have tapped into pressing topics for the industry, with bookings strong for the three-day programme, he says. “Having industry in the same space as innovators, scientists, suppliers and impartial experts for three days is a unique opportunity, and we expect to see new technology, initiatives, partnerships and field trials seeded at WinePro 2024.”

Plant & Food Research will present several of its ongoing projects at the expo, including the new experimental vineyard lab to be launched at the New Zealand Wine Centre in July. The facility, which is being developed alongside the Bragato Research Institute winery in Blenheim, has a retractable rain shelter and will host 48 pots of soil, plants and sensors, enabling research into climate change adaptation. Plant & Food Research science group leader for viticulture and oenology Damian Martin says the lab will be part of a worldleading hub for research and innovation, and a “magnet” for collaboration. WinePro offers a great opportunity to share that and other key research programmes, he says. “It is very important to make the wine industry aware of the need for long horizon, underpinning research to answer questions that relate to balancing the economic need for intensive grape production systems with good stewardship of the environment for future generations.”

Plant & Food Research plant pathologist Dr Karmun Chooi says events like WinePro are a valuable opportunity to communicate projects to industry and receive feedback. “We have to let industry stakeholders know that tech and science companies can work together, and do want to work together. This is where events like WinePro are important.” Karmun has been leading a tech collaboration using artificial intelligence and autonomous vineyard robots to detect grapevine leafroll disease in New Zealand vineyards. VinEye, which was put to the test across 50 hectares of vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and Marlborough vineyard during the 2024 harvest, includes input from Agri Automation, which supplied the Robotic Burros; Bitwise Agronomy, which processed and analysed huge amounts of raw data using the Plant & Food VinEye algorithm; and Integrape, which provides online monitoring tools. “Partnering with winegrowers, other leading agritech companies and Plant & Food Research is providing the opportunity to develop a tool which could be a game changer for the industry going forward,” says Integrape’s Joris Besamusca.

Each company has its own speciality, and together they can help generate a new solution for industry “that will be fit for purpose”, Karmun says. That’s a message they’ll all be sharing at WinePro. “We have an opportunity to show others what we’ve been able to achieve together, but it’s also important for us to hear feedback from industry at these events. What do they think of the project? What more or less do they want to see? This feedback is essential for our collaboration too, as it helps ensure our project outputs are relevant for industry and we can also consider potential future industry applications.”

Steve Saunders, co-founder of Robotics Plus, says collaboration is essential to solving industry challenges. His business will be at WinePro in collaboration with Croplands, presenting Prospr (see page 67), an autonomous, multi-use, hybrid vehicle designed for vineyards and orchards. “It is crucial to get the industry involved in new technology innovation early. Growers are innovators, and they are looking at different ways to transform and grow for automation that addresses key pain points,” Steve says. “Our interactions with early customers have been partnerships, with growers sharing their experiences and how they would like to see technology develop in the future.”

Marlborough District Council Economic Development Portfolio Manager Mark Unwin says the event is a great opportunity to showcase technology already in the field, noting the handful of autonomous tractors at work for Marlborough’s 2024 vintage. It will also showcase emerging technology through the conference programme and a dedicated startup section at the expo, as well as through a Dragon’s Den event on the evening of 26 June, where angel investors will weigh up the opportunities and challenges presented by startup founders. Wine Marlborough, Marlborough District Council and Expertise Events developed the WinePro conference programme with help from an industry steering group comprised of Tracy Atkin, Heath Stafford and Ben McLauchlan. Tracy, who is a startup champion, board director and Chief Executive of Marlborough Capital Ltd, says they wanted innovative topics and “provocative” thinking, addressing the big issues right now and essential considerations for the future. She’s excited by the breadth and depth of the conference offering, the Startup space in the expo, and a Women in Business breakfast she is leading on 27 June, themed around blending old and new world wine business, with speakers Eva Pemper, Anne Escalle, and Dr Samantha Scarratt sharing experiences in New Zealand, Australia and Europe.

WinePro is not just about business, says organiser Gary FitzRoy, of Expertise Events. “It’s a celebration and tribute to the remarkable achievements of the New Zealand wine sector.”

Smart Solutions at WinePro

Winemakers and Marlborough-based water engineering company SWE has resulted in “smarter, faster, and safer” spray technology. SWE was named as a finalist in the NZ Hi-Tech Awards for its SmartSpray solution, which automates the spray mixing process using an automated pumping and injection system. Tractor spraying units receive the right quantity, composition and dilution of solution, tailored to each specific job, minimising manual and chemical handling. SWE’s Stephen Leitch says the process allows vineyard operators to complete spray mixing in just 25% of the time previously required. “The previous standard practice for spraying in the vineyard required operators to dress in PPE, put gloves on, mix up the chemical solution, put it into the spray unit and then take all the PPE gear off and hang it up before they’re able to complete the cycle of spraying. Then they’d have to come back and do it all again for the next cycle… Operators can now simply connect a hose and push a couple of buttons to start the automated filling process, then they are good to go.”

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