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Sustainable Winegrowing with the Vineyard Team brings you the latest in science and research for the wine industry. This on-the-go, sustainable farming educational resource provides in-depth technical information on topics like integrated pest management, fruit quality, water conservation, and nutrient management from experts like Dr. Mark Fuchs of Cornell University, Dr. Michelle Moyer of Washington State University, Cooperative Extension Specialists, veteran growers, and more. Our podcasts will help you make smarter, sustainable vineyard management decisions to increase efficiency, conserve resources, and maximize fruit quality.

Apr 18, 2024

An antiquated California law makes the use of autonomous equipment in the vineyard challenging. Michael Miiller, Director of Government Relations at the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) explains that workplace safety standards developed in the 1970s based on 1940s equipment state that self-driven tractors must have an operator onboard. To update this law, CAWG is working closely with manufacturers and countries that allow autonomous equipment to aggregate data on safety. Automation has many potential benefits to farm workers include developing transferable skills, upward mobility, precision agriculture, and increased safety. Learn about how the law works today and about funding opportunities to train staff.


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Craig Macmillan  0:00 

Our guest today is Michael Miiller. He is Director of Government Relations at the California association of wine grape growers. And thanks for being on the program.


Michael Miiller  0:09 

Thank you for having me.


Craig Macmillan  0:11 

The talk today is where we're at with autonomous tractors as they give a presentation, and you brought up some of the issues we were facing. And I know you've worked on this a lot as well, if you can tell us as of where we are here, end of February 2024. Are we going to get our detractors or not?


Michael Miiller  0:30 

That's a really good question. And you can approach them in a whole bunch of different ways. One is we already have them, the technologies there. Now they're being used in many vineyards, across companies around the world. They're also being used in orchards and fields and other commodities. And the reasons for that are in that it's not just economics, it's also about availability of workforce. It's about precision, agriculture, precision, viticulture, making sure that we are good stewards of the land. And it's also about looking to the future, making sure that we have a sustainable industry to grow by grower sustainable vineyard is a huge investment in So on one hand, yes, we already have that. On the other hand, there are continued complications of California law with it. The law states that if you are using self driven tractors, and that's the language in the California workplace safety standards, self driven tractors, then that means that you're supposed to have a driver on board that equipment. So if you have an autonomous tractor that is self driven, meaning that it's programmed to operate without a driver on board, but through electronic means through technology, then you're supposed to have a driver on that board, no matter what. And that law obviously very antiquated. It was, you know, created in the 1970s is one of the very first workplace safety standards in California, is based on 1940s technology. And it's basically targeting for a guided tractors and seeding you mechanisms, as well as irrigation, those kinds of things. And that really targeting the tractors or technology we have today just wasn't even a fathem of possibility back in the 40s 50 60 70. So this is all new logic doesn't address that issue. So in that sense, we're not there yet. But we're getting there.


Craig Macmillan  2:24 

Reading up on this topic. But first of all, I can see why it came about. Because I remember growing vegetable fields where people were laying irrigation pipe, and there was nobody in the trenches. And I thought, wow, and then also I thought that was really dangerous is someone who then has to jump up into the tractor to train the roads. So they're putting the wheels and things I can understand that. And yeah, nobody had any idea we'd be here today. So where's the resistance coming from this point from this code from Cal OSHA that coming from the legislature was we're, what's the book that we're reading from?


Michael Miiller  2:57 

So it's a couple of things. One hand, while there is resistance for some talk about where where we have embraced, right, where we have people welcoming, you have to remember that the California is the place where agriculture and technology intersect, right? We're largest agricultural state in the nation with a home of great innovation technology. So for these things to come together in California, um, it isn't by happenstance, you know, it's because the technology is here that needs parties here. And people generally understand that this technology, you know, while it seems new, or there's something that is up and coming and in development, it is here already, and it is here to stay. So people do genuinely know that, you know, looking at regulators looking at politicians, they generally get that there is a need to get this right. Okay. So that's the good part of it. The resistance comes in a couple places. One, you have labor unions, who basically fundamentally think that they're gonna lose jobs, technology, right? That for every track that has being driven and remotely, yeah, that's one less tractor driver. And they see that as a job loss in this example. We don't see it that way. We fundamentally believe that in California, there are two tractor jobs for every one tractor driver, you know, we just don't have enough workers to do the job. So in that reality, we're not losing jobs. We're just not. That's just not the reality. And the other part of it, too, we also know that if you take the average person who was working on a tractor and say, Hey, would you rather ride that tractor all day long? Or would you rather operate that tractor remotely from a laptop computer with a skill that is transferable to other industries? I would say more than 99% of those drivers say, yeah, you take me off the tractor. If I can do it remotely? Absolutely. Why would I want to be on the tractor? We don't really see it as a job loss issue. We also see more as a job safety issue. And we know that with technology, the firm is much much safer. It just is because of how the machine is designed to be used. If you're spraying pesticide with it with a machine It is going to be more precise, where it is applied. And it's going to be lesser in amounts and how much is applied. So we think that that is increased worker safety, as well as the basic fact that there's nobody on that tractor, it's less likely that someone's going to get hurt by that tractor. So we really fundamentally believe that is actually as a increase worker safety, increased environmental safety, as well as no job loss. But that is really views are coming from they're fundamentally concerned about job loss, I would never speak for them, you should talk with them yourself. But that's what they testify to in public hearings, then you look at the other issue, the big the bigger public perspective, and the bigger political conversations that happen around it. And we talked about anything that is automated, as far as you know, equipment, vehicles driving around, the first place people go to as those taxis in San Francisco, and they look at it from that perspective, okay. You've got busy roads, you've got hills, you've got curves, you've got pedestrians, you have all of those factors. And then they look at the videos that are, you know, online and computer, you know, YouTube, whatever. And they see those occurrences which, frankly, are very infrequent and not the common occurrence, but they're an infrequent occurrence. But they see those infrequent occurrences and they see them as commonplace, even though they're not. And then they see them, as is something that, you know, applies to all autonomous equipment, all self driven equipment. And in reality, if you're looking at, you know, the tractor moving two and a half miles per hour through a vineyard, when nobody's there, you have a very different situation than, you know, 1000 pound, you know, semi truck going down the interstate for a taxi in downtown San Francisco, was a very different situations. And so we think that we really just look at ag equipment autonomously in a vineyard, because we represent winegraoe growers, that it should be a whole separate conversation from all of the other, you know, autonomous equipment conversations,


Craig Macmillan  7:03 

There are autonomous tractors in other states, right, and other countries. So is it possible to bring in these races from these other places, and make an argument that would be persuasive?


Michael Miiller  7:17 

That is exactly what we're doing. We believe, whenever you're writing, a workplace safety regulation, this should be based on data should be based on evidence should be based on facts. It shouldn't be based on hyperbolic concerns and discussions, right? Although there's always you know, the the element of people to be safe and where there are concerns. And those concerns or concerns are expressed broadly. Some people I think, take anecdotes and view them as facts or evidence, when in reality, an anecdote is not, you know, conclusive evidence. So we're looking at that evidence from not only other states, but other countries as well. You look over Europe, South America, Australia, New Zealand, I mean, this equipment is in use, and they have data of the manufacturers have. And they put that together, some of the labor unions have resisted that data, they think that if the worker isn't represented by a union, then the worker is afraid to file a complaint or speak up and therefore the data isn't reliable. And in California, you've got less than point 5% of our ag forces represented by a union. Most workers in California don't want to be in a union, they don't see any gain to their advantage in that. In that reality, then it's incumbent on us to come up with all that right data and all that right evidence. And that's what we're doing. We're working closely with those other countries, manufacturers, those countries and others. I recently met with the company from New Zealand, and they were had a very interesting presentation about how they have a robot that goes through the vineyard. And it scans in real time looking for viruses and diseases. If you think of for red blotch, for example, right, the robot will go through it a cup, and then the grower and your manager will get on their computer screen, an image of that vineyard with specific locations of where there's a problem and where it needs to be treated. So that grower can then take a robotic tractor, go into that vineyard the next day, and sprayed just those locations where there are problems. And they're doing that in New Zealand and heavy hills, all kinds of terrain, and they're doing it successfully in a very safe way. And that's evidence that we that we you know, gathering and putting together and we think that that's ultimately gonna be very helpful to us.


Craig Macmillan  9:37 

You brought up an interesting point that is certainly talked about autonomous tractors and tractor are mentioned or equipments mentioned in either zero. This is Cal OSHA regulation?


Michael Miiller  9:47 



Craig Macmillan  9:48 

Does this apply to things like automated robots?


Michael Miiller  9:51 

Probably because remember, when you're talking about self driven agricultural equipment equipment.


Craig Macmillan  9:56 

Yeah, then can be very broad. Interesting, interviewed a number of different posts for the podcast that are working on automated robots to do all kinds of stuff. And this exact problem had really occurred to me.


Michael Miiller  10:10 

If you think about it from the perspective of some of the sprayers that are out there now, there's a sprayer that has like three different models. And there is no, you know, driver's seat, there's no steering wheel, there's no accelerator, brake, clutch, gear shift none of that. It's all operated remotely. So even if you wanted to put somebody on top of that sprayer and have it running through the vineyard, there's no place a person to be. It's just not physically possible. Right?


Craig Macmillan  10:39 

Where are we have what's coming up next? We're in February 2024. And you had mentioned public hearings and testimony speaking in the Senate, what's the next phase on this topic?


Michael Miiller  10:49 

So we're working closely with the manufacturers, we believe that the best way forward is mobile a couple of things. If your viewers are members of the California Association of wine grape growers, we put out a FAQ fact sheet that we think will help growers to use equipment under California law legally in California, in California, the key is that we using that equipment, it shouldn't be anybody else in the vendor, right? If the tractors going through doing his work, just make sure that there's nobody there. Because if you do that, then it is not really a workplace. Remember, the regulation is a workplace safety standard that applies to a workplace. So if there's nobody there is not a workplace, that law doesn't apply to that. And again, I'm not your lawyer. So I encourage you to read our FAQ sheet, but that also talk with your legal counsel and your HR professionals. Make sure that works for your specific situation. Very broadly speaking, if there's nobody in the in the vineyard, then it's not really work because it should be elaborative. But that means you should also keep the records of that, how do you how do you document that there's nobody there and keep your payroll records, make sure it's all detailed, keep time logs about when the machines that use or where it's in use, you make sure you've got all that documented for a minimum of six months. So that if there's ever a citation issue, if somebody files a complaint, you can then say, Okay, here's what you know, here's what we did, here's how we did it. And there's nobody there. Therefore, it's not a workplace, and therefore, there's no basis for the citation. So that's in the short term, because, again, I have visited a number of venues where the equipment is in use. And that is fundamentally how it's often used right now, with nobody around the equipment they the operative late at night, they operate on doing equipment that doesn't really require anybody to be in the vineyard. So it fits what's in practice today is to really look at that separate from a workplace safety standard, because it's not really a workplace. So that's the short term. And the long term, we really got to fix this regulation, we just have to the regulation is goes back to the disco age, for God's sake, right, music has changed. So it's technology. So and so was fashion, right? So yeah, I don't have any bell bottoms anymore. So so we need to think about, you know, how that regulation, you know, should read and how it should apply to just autonomous equipment and what that would look like. And part of that is going to have to come from the manufacturer, industry from the from that sector, because they're the engineers, they're the experts, they know how to do that, right? The agricultural end of it, we can bring all kinds of evidence to bear about why it's needed, and why it's appropriate, why it needs to be updated, the details of the equipment itself, what if defined with equipment is in a way this engineer and how its technology is used, then you have to look at how to operate that equipment safely and what that looks like and how that, you know, operates. And then you go look at where is equipment intended to be used and for what purpose. So you've got to put all that together in a regulation that your reflects the science, not only of today, but also where things are going. So because we have to keep going back and just as regulation of science, develops, technology grows over time, is gonna be a long, long continual investment process of the regulation. And we think it should be written in a way that reflects what's happening today, with also our appreciation of what's coming down the road, is we know that there's more coming. I mean, we're at the tip of the iceberg of what the technology can do right now.


Craig Macmillan  14:35 

Oh, yeah, no, you're absolutely right. I the role of humans in this is always the tricky bit. It's kind of an aside, but I'm old enough to remember when laser cutters first came out. It was kind of a panic that you're gonna put an eye on you're gonna blind somebody with these, you're gonna and no, I don't want to shine in my eye but they're all over the place. I use them all the time and they're just they're not illegal. Don't put it in an airplane. Hopefully we can kind of get past some of it. So one of the reasons I say that is, again, I've talked to many guests, they're going full on in this area. And they've got federal funding, like you said, it's being it's being implemented in all over the world. And we need to catch up.


Michael Miiller  15:13 

Frankly, if you're a grower in California, and you're not thinking about looking at precision agriculture, and how do you use this technology, you're making a mistake, because it really will benefit every part of the industry. I firmly believe that and it'll benefit our workforce, our communities, everybody involved. Well, another example perhaps for me too, is you mentioned laser printer. The other ones, I remember the 70s When I was a kid, the invention of scanning groceries, the barcodes at the cash register, right? That didn't exist before early 70s. Right. And one of the places where there was a lot of pushback on it was from cashiers, they thought you're going to replace my job with these machines are going to scan the groceries. And if you talk to the average grocery cashier today, they would not want that job otherwise, because it makes their job a lot easier.


Craig Macmillan  16:05 

You still need cashiers.


Michael Miiller  16:07 

Correct. Yeah.


Craig Macmillan  16:08 

Yeah. I mean, that role didn't go away. You know, when I first met you, I saw you give a talk. And I asked you a question. I'm gonna answer this question here. That does a really interesting answer. We're definitely moving this technology direction. There's no doubt of it. When we're talking automation, we're talking robotics, we're talking electrical driven motors, on and on and on, this is going to take a pretty sophisticated workforce to not only operate, but also to maintain nationally or in California, are we bringing people into learn these topics in these areas?


Michael Miiller  16:46 

That's a good question. It's a several layered answer. You know, one is one hand. Yes, we are. I mean, when you're looking at some of the manufacturers who are doing some of this product testing, they're making sure that there are people trained to operate their machines, and there's the training themselves as part of the package, when you buy the tractor, you're gonna get some assistance and training your employees to have a part of it as you have Fresno State university, UC Davis, Cal Poly, a lot of community colleges, who are already training in some of this work, they're they're making sure that where there is training of agriculture industry, that that training includes technology, right. They're training people, you know, for all of that, as well as for the marketing in the industry, product, all of it. So the training is already happening as well, or I mentioned earlier, where we know that there's some embrace of this issue, the governor just recently announced that there's going to be a $10 million program at the EDD employment training panel, where there's some money being provided for agricultural employers to train their employees and various things, not just technology, it can be all kinds of different issues. But the idea goes to make sure that we have a sustainable workforce of workers are getting trained in skills that will benefit them through upward mobility, transferable skills, and all of that. And that $10 million is for that purpose. So if you're the if you're the grower, who's wanting to make that change, and move, move from, you know, traditional tractors to self driven automation, whatever kind of equipment you're going towards, you know, it might be an option for that grower to, to apply for a grant for the ETP, to get some funding to train those people in that new skill. So there is a lot of recognition of the need to train workers and to make sure that that people have the skills necessary. One of the big ones you mentioned was how do you maintain these tractors, right, if you've got an electric tractor, you know, that's operating on the battery. And it's a whole different mechanism than if you have a tractor, that's diesel gasoline, you know that how you repair that equipment, how you service equipment, you maintain it, it's a bit of a different skill. So we need people who are trained in that as well as how to operate it. So there's a pretty substantial need for training people. And I think that that's kind of the appeal of it too. Because all those skills are transferable. When we look at our workforce, we see that the average ag worker is getting older and older. That's because we're not bringing in a lot of younger people, right? They don't want to do the ag work, they want to do something different, right? They're more interested and motivated to do other kinds of work. So if we can look at that reality for younger workers and say, how do we make this job more appealing to them? And we're applying these kinds of technologies and skills, they will come back because at work in the 70s is very different than ag work today with this technology. It's just an entirely different thing.


Craig Macmillan  19:46 

 If there was one thing that you would tell a great or on this topic, what would it be?


Michael Miiller  19:52 

I'll start with this. I'm a Midwestern kid. I was born in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I spent most of my childhood in Iowa and Wisconsin, my tie back to agriculture is from that Midwest experience, right. And my uncle has a farm outside of Mitchell, South Dakota. And I would go help them as farmers and I drive tractor and do whatever he had. He had hogs. He had some cattle, he grew soybeans, corn, alfalfa, all kinds of stuff. He was very diverse in what he did every year. You know, he relied on Mother Nature for rain in new irrigation back there, right? So I remember talking with him after I come out to California, just touching him, see how he's doing? And I asked him, so what's your most reliable crop right now? How are you doing with it? How was how's the industry has environment, it's my most reliable crop right now is a cell tower, that I lease on the corner of my land, that is guaranteed income every year, every year that's guaranteed income. With that in mind, if I talk to a grower today and say, what's, what's the one thing they should really think about, think about where your opportunities are to actually, you know, save money, invest in the future, reduce your cost, and actually create those reliable sources of income and sustainability, right. So if you're looking at things like carbon sequestration in the vineyard, you're looking at cover crops you're looking at, you know, all of that kind of stuff. You're looking at, you know, a technology that is down the road, you're looking at stuff that's coming, and I would pause, take a breath and look at all of that, because there are huge opportunities there is some growers laughed at my uncle for putting up this tower. He's like, Yeah, but this is cash income every month. And I'm good to go with it. Yeah. So yes, I say continue looking at the technology and see how it applies to your bottom line. Because you will be surprised at how much and how big of an advantage it is for growers to actually look at this technology and make that investment.


Craig Macmillan  21:55 

I'm from the Midwest, myself. I'm from Iowa, Soux Falls Iowa.


Michael Miiller  21:58 

I lived in Waterloo as a kid.


Craig Macmillan  22:00 

You're kidding me.


Michael Miiller  22:01 

No, Waterloo!


Craig Macmillan  22:02 

We need to edit this part out! Well, then you can well, then you really can relate to this. You know, I was involved in farming, I was a city kid. But we had, you know, members of our church, or folks that we knew who had farms and side of town, they had to make some big decisions. Sometimes, you know, depending on the price of corn, they may have to store it, I may put it in a silo. Or maybe I should look at another crop or another type of livestock or something like that. Since that time, we now have farms with tractors that are running on GPS that have intelligent sprayers all programed. And a family can farm quite a bit of ground with again, a lot of safety, but they weren't big investments. They were risks. That's that's what I hear from around other crops. It's like Nope, that was a big jump. But once we did, it made tons of sense, it worked out great. I do want to kind of underline your idea that we should definitely be looking and thinking and doing the math. And then especially as technology becomes more adopted.


Michael Miiller  23:00 

Everybody's got to make the decision as a grower by grower or video by vineyard basis. But in speaking in general terms, I think growers would be surprised actually beneficial it is to them.


Craig Macmillan  23:10 

Where can people find out more about you in these topics?


Michael Miiller  23:13 

You go to our website www orgy my email simple Michael at Send me a text anytime email I'm easy to get a hold of. The contact information is on the website. And there's some information on there as well mentioned our FAQs etc website and it gets available for our growers and viewers who aren't caught growers should be known I could help you with that as well.


Craig Macmillan  23:39 

Okay, sounds good. This today was Michael Miiller. He's Director of Government Relations, California Association of wine grape growers. Thanks for being here.


Michael Miiller  23:46 

Thank you so much. Enjoy yoru day.


Craig Macmillan  24:22 

Waterloo, Iowa


Michael Miiller  24:24 

Yeah! yeah, go cyclones.


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