There’s a crisis playing out in vineyards and farms across the world: There aren’t enough workers to pick the fruit or reap the crops. Worse, fewer young people are willing to take up farming and viticulture.
“There is a deficit generally in agriculture in Australia,” agreed Andreas Clark, CEO of Wine Australia. “There are more jobs than there is a pipeline of people coming through.”
It’s a problem that Wine Australia is taking seriously – and they see some solutions.
Inspiration through education
“What’s really important to us is expanding beyond this one-dimensional aspect of working on the vineyard, when it’s actually working in a business,” said Clarke. He said one avenue is getting people into schools, to explain that agriculture is a sector where people need plenty of “business acumen and commercial nous”. It’s also a place where they will have a chance to lay their hands on plenty of technology. “There is a prevalence of agricultural technology and commercial solutions that are making farms and vineyards smarter places.”
Clark said it was equally important for the wine industry to attract people with IT and digital skills.
“What we’re keen to try and do is attract the best and brightest to work on solving some of our sector’s solutions,” he said, adding the industry needs “people who have expertise in artificial intelligence and machine learning and Big Data”.
One problem, of course, is salaries, as people qualified in machine learning can earn stratospheric money in places like Silicon Valley. Clark thinks the wine industry has other things to offer.
“Where we can use our advantage is that people want to be connected with real things, and growing and making real things,” he said. “Wine is very alluring in that regard, because there’s a great narrative that sits behind it. We need to harness that to be a beacon, coupled with real opportunities.”
Wine Australia has already seen what machine learning can do, as it worked with an Adelaide company to develop a tool to map Australia’s vineyards. “It can scan the map and pick up the vineyards, and it’s getting better every year.”
It more than proved its worth during the recent bushfires, as Wine Australia could “scan the map to understand the direct impact on the vineyards – the proximity of the fires to the vineyard regions, and the potential smoke impact.”
Even better, it was an example of machine learning that was taken into schools. “At my kids’ school in Adelaide, they had a number of presenters come in to talk about data science and the opportunities, and that was one of the examples they brought in to show 15 and 16-year-old kids.”
Hopefully, it will have inspired students to think about the wine industry as a career. Of course, great stories and the chance to work with the hands aside, the wine industry will become even more attractive if it can offer financial rewards.
Australia’s wine industry has around four to five very big companies, a range of medium-sized companies, and thousands of small wineries and grape growers, all spread across 65 regions. Keeping the sector healthy is important, because wine not only keeps people on the land, but employs around 170,000 and contributes more than A$40bn ($26.5bn) to the economy.
As Clark said, “the key is not to be command and control from HQ”, but rather to offer people data and insights. Keeping the small wineries from being overwhelmed is one way to help. “They’ve got so much to do and have to wear so many hats,” said Clark. “They’ve got to grow the grapes, make the wine, run the finances, the marketing, the human resources…”
What Wine Australia has found works is to “pull together relevant content in a condensed format,” to give wine businesses the market intelligence and information they need to build their businesses. Initiatives include two-day, intensive courses on topics like how to grow wine tourism, or wine exports. “They’re intense, practical and hands-on,” he said. “Very commercial, with a whole bunch of ready reckoners and tools that people can use.” The ready reckoners let wineries calculate their fixed costs and FOB value, as well as their final price in different markets. “We want to help them become a more profitable and sustainable business.”
What lies ahead
After a deep downturn a decade ago, Australia’s wine industry has come roaring back thanks, in part, to China. “We have seen quite extraordinary growth in China. It’s fantastic,” said Clark. “In the past twelve months we’ve become number one in the market and surged past the French.”
He said Covid-19 was going to have an impact on those sales. “There are going to be ups and downs. There always will be,” he said.
Clark said Wine Australia is also focusing on other countries, from its traditional UK market, through to the Nordics.
Australia is also heading back to the US, even though it’s a market where “we had some challenges. We lost half a billion dollars in premium wine sales in the US.” So why try again? “We’ve been there before and know we can be there again. It’s the largest wine market in the world.”
Wine Australia did a “major multifaceted campaign in the US” late last year, and Clark said everyone is aware that not only is the US a difficult market because of the three tier system, but it’s “a market where you need to be there consistently.”
Clark represents a country with more than its share of challenges, not least the recent destructive bushfires. He said that while he doesn’t want to downplay the devastation, less than one percent of Australia’s total vineyard area was affected. He said Australians are “a resilient bunch. I’ve spoken to the individuals affected and they’ve quickly moved from grief into ‘OK, this is my lot, I need to build again and build better for the future’.”
He added: “The outpouring of support has been overwhelming – communities put their arms around each other, which is a beautiful thing to see globally. The support has been fantastic.”
If Clark has one message to tell the world, it’s that Australia will be able to keep up the premium supply. “Rest assured, the global consumer will be able to get Australian wine during the course of this year.”
Which will, hopefully, bring in the kind of profits that will ensure the wine sector is an attractive place for the next generation.