A compact, smart, electric tractor has been on the wish list of sustainably-minded winegrowers the world over. With no significant advances in tractor technology for more than a decade, the arrival of the Monarch tractor represents the missing link needed to fast track the integration of precision agriculture and address the growing labor challenges confronting the wine industry.
After spending five long years in development at Motivo Engineering and almost two years in trials in Northern California, the Monarch electric tractor (e-tractor) which takes its name from Carlo Mondavi’s sustainability initiative the Monarch Challenge, made a quiet debut at the Unified Symposium in early 2020.
Mondavi is chief farming officer and co-founder with CEO Praveen Penmetsa, founder and CEO of Motivo, and CTO Zachary Omohundro, a robotics expert from the mining industry, of Monarch Tractors. “At a time when we’re pushing for sustainability which requires spending more time in the vineyard, we’re being confronted with a labor shortage,” said Penmesta. “Our technology is a bridge to sustainability.”
With OSHA stepping down the agricultural work week to 40 hours by 2022, there’s an even greater incentive to manage and automate vineyard tasks. The need to do more with less time and manpower is a reoccurring theme for anyone on the front lines of managing a vineyard.
At a base price of $50,000, the driver-optional Monarch e-tractor delivers 70 horse power (at peak performance) in comparison to the standard 25 horse power of most compact conventional tractors. The e-tractor’s low torque gives it the ability to pull large loads at slow speeds. According to Penmetsa, the Monarch’s low-torque electric engine delivers 200 Newton-meters (N⋅m) of torque compared to the 90 – 120 (N⋅m) of a diesel engine.
For winemaker Steve Matthiasson, who talked with the Monarch development team over the course of a few years providing input on functionality, said the realization of an e-tractor nullifies the most commonly levied argument against organic farming. Namely, objections to the carbon footprint generated by mechanical weed control.
The Monarch is equipped with a single universal, three-point hitch that can accept any implement meeting the tractor’s horsepower requirements. Matthiasson uses several different under-vine implements – Clemens weed knife, Pellenc Under-the-Vine weeder known as the “sunflower,” and Gearmore Spedo in-row cultivators – all of which he’ll be able to use with greater precision and without a drop of diesel. “With the sensing capabilities that built in to the Monarch, we’ll be using all of our implements in a more precise way,” he said. “This moves us one step further along on the continuum of sustainability.”
“The bar for sustainability has been set so low,” said Mondavi. “We absolutely need to get rid of diesel and by going electric, you’ll save $45 a day on diesel and maintenance.”
Jesus Hernandez, vineyard manager and grower relations at Artesa Winery, first saw the Monarch at Unified and has since attended several demonstrations to see the Monarch in action and working autonomously for 30 minutes at a time.
Completing the redevelopment of the estate vineyards at Artesa the majority of which are planted to rolling foot hills at the base of Mount Veeder is a priority for Hernandez. With or without a driver, the Monarch helps insure safety through artificial intelligence, roll and collision prevention, 360° cameras and a full sensor suite designed to protect both workers and the vineyard.
Hernandez sees the Monarch etractor as key to applying precision agriculture. “Using data from the Monarch’s sensors we’ll be able to spot treat for outbreaks of mildew, pests and nutrient deficiencies,” he said. Artesa is planning to take delivery of a Monarch next fall and Hernandez sees adding additional vehicles over the next few years as his existing conventional fleet ages out. Artesa is still in the early stages of planning and considering both solar and wind turbines. “For now, we’ll be using the grid to power the Monarch.”
Penmetsa and Mondavi have spent the last year trialing the Monarch at one of Wente Vineyard’s fallow sites in Livermore. According to viticulture manager Niki Wente, the winery was in the right place at the right time. They worked with the Monarch team to submit a grant proposal to the Bay Area Air Quality District for zero-emission farm equipment and were awarded two Monarch e-tractors. “This fits right in with our sustainability goals,” said Wente. “Reducing emissions is ideal for us; it’s ideal for everyone.” The winery anticipates receiving delivery of their Monarchs in March 2021 and initially plans to use the e-tractor’s automation for mowing, vineyard installation and removal.
The wind turbine at Scheid Family Wines in Monterey, Calif. generates two megawatts of power, some of which is soon going to be charging a Monarch. “With the addition of an e-tractor, we’ll be able to complete the story of generating our own power,” said Greg Gonzalez, director of vineyard operations at Scheid, who knew about the R & D but also got his first look at the Monarch during Unified. “One of the true aspects of sustainability is creating higher value for your workers,” said Gonzales. “By transitioning workers from direct management of the vines to managing precision agriculture systems, we’re upskilling and redefining our labor force.”
Gonzalez is already looking to the near future. “In the best-case scenario, we’ll have two implements working simultaneously with the Monarch and get two vineyard tasks done in one pass.”