By Laura Ness
The numbers don’t lie: there has been a steady loss of immigrant labor back across the Mexican border for the past 10 years, and it’s creating a true brain drain. The Mexican economy continues to accelerate, meaning fewer workers are motivated to head north. Many migrant workers have decided not to return to America for a variety of reasons, including cost, fear and uncertainty about how they’ll be treated. If they can get a job and live at home with their families, why leave?
Almost everyone in the wine industry we spoke with for this article indicated they were being impacted by the growing labor shortage, either by not being able to find skilled vineyard workers at critical times or by having to pay more for necessary services. Many also pointed to the impact of other more lucrative crops competing for labor resources: among them, sugar peas, cherries and perhaps the most alluring of them all, marijuana.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mendocino County, where the weed industry has long been entrenched. Winegrower Martha Barra of Barra Family Vineyards says the competition for help is fierce year round and getting worse. They have 325 acres with 275 planted to grapes and demand for their price point continues to build. They are also extensively replanting as well as putting in new vineyards. Although she and her husband Charlie have five families living and working on their property, three of which came in 1983, it’s nowhere near enough to handle the growing business.
That prompted her to call the Sheriff at the Mendocino County jail to see if he had any convicts that could be let out for supervised work detail. After careful vetting, he was able to find men willing to work, and taking care of delivering and picking up the workers daily. They wear ankle bracelets and GPS monitors, and cost $11 per day. That’s actually working out well, as she’s had four to six such workers for the last four years. She even hired one young man full time after he completed his sentence.
Charlie and Martha Barra
But that source of labor is neither deep nor reliable enough. Barra said she has had to resort to labor contractors, but at pruning or harvest time, they would promise her a crew of 15 and show up with six. “We had no control over our own crop,” she says. “We can’t fool around. We have a lot of grapes, and when they’re ready, they’re ready.”
The Department of Agriculture also makes inmates available for field work, but of the 300 or so that were allegedly available, she was only able to get six to help with harvest.
So, desperate for help last year, she drove down by The Home Depot in Ukiah hoping to pick up some day laborers to do some pruning work, but it turned out the only work they were interested in was picking buds.
She thought, “This is what is happening to us. The marijuana industry is taking away workers.”
So at great cost, she hired a labor attorney from Texas with immigration experience and after many months, just hired 8 Mexican workers under the H-2A visa program for the first time. She hopes it will be worth the tremendous investment of time, energy and legal consulting fees she’s already made.
“H-2A is so complicated,” she notes. “Before we could apply, we had to advertise in Oregon and Arizona for job applicants to fill the positions. Only one person expressed interest: a mushroom picker from Ft. Bragg.” The domestic labor pool is just not there when it comes to the demanding labor of vineyard work.
The H-2A program, which brings in temporary workers for a maximum of 10 months, requires employers to provide lodging, transportation, meals or access to a kitchen to prepare meals. Workers are dedicated to that employer and cannot work elsewhere. Barra hopes to employ 8 such workers this year. If not, she says, “We’re screwed. All the newly planted vines need to be hand-tended.”
Says Barra, “We do not have to pay health insurance or payroll taxes for these workers. They do not draw social security. These are people who go back to their families when their time is up. It’s strictly regulated. The Department of Labor requires workers to be paid $12.57/hour, while minimum wage is $10.50. “Our minimum wage is $13 on our ranch,” says Barra.
She notes that in Washington State, the apple industry employs 15k H-2A workers, and the strawberry fields of Ventura, another 10k. The number of workers imported under this program has increased 18% in the last five years.
Winegrower Kathleen Inman in Sonoma, has always been hands on, doing a good deal of work herself in her Olivet Grange Vineyard. “For spraying, mowing, and larger projects like pruning and harvest, I have used the same management company since 2000, when I planted the vineyard,” she says. Her labor costs have steadily increased, due to fewer workers being available, concurrent with fruit costs going up at least 10-20%.
The fundamental problem here is that there are very few American-born citizens with any interest in agriculture whatsoever: they simply are not interested in working the fields, orchards or vineyards.
Says Inman, “We have not found any existing residents in CA who want to do field work. There is a large pool of young people in Mexico who are anxious to work, but are not allowed to cross the border and work here legally. When I have had customers who have asked if they could help with harvest, without exception, after picking five or six bandejas (trays) at 70lbs each and lifting them up over their heads and into the picking bins on the tractors, they ask, ‘how much longer?’ The answer is, 8-10 hours a day for 8-10 weeks solid!”
“We are in a serious bind. There is just no labor,” says Winegrower Iscander “Isy” Borjón, who manages 500 vineyard acres in Amador County, and provides labor for an additional 500. He says workers go back to visit family in Mexico and find it way too expensive to return. Consequently, labor costs have skyrocketed 30% to 40% in the last few years. “Labor knows we need them,” he observes. “They smell blood in the water.”
Borjón notes that workers can make $800 to $1k in a week, working four hours per day picking cherries. “That’s a lot better than a 54-hour week at $11.50/hour pruning or shoot-thinning grapevines!”
“Working in the vineyards is hot, exhausting, difficult work,” agrees Rolando Herrera of Mi Sueno in Napa. “They will take a higher paying job, even if it means just 25 cents more per hour.”
Herrera, whose father was a Bracero, came to California as a migrant laborer, working three to four months per year. He’d like to see a return to a more lenient policy towards part-time labor: “We need a simple, legalized program for people to come for a few months a year.”
Seeing where the labor situation was headed, Herrera decided to offer his crew of 15 full-time employment, complete with benefits. With 40 total acres of tiny vineyards that are more like “gardens,” he cannot even consider mechanization. “I’m old school,” he says. And he works 12-hour days. “I’m happy to cut my margins to pay them.”
Winegrower Nick Farinelli of Turley Vineyards in Amador, says the cherry crop this year was so huge, it sucked up the Ag labor pool right during a critical time for shoot thinning and leaf pulling. “We just had to wait it out,” he says. You can’t do that during harvest, though.
Winegrower Tom Gamble, is in a good place: it’s called Napa. Through direct ownership and partnerships, he farms 175 acres in Napa Valley. Says Gamble, “We have several direct long-time employees, and the rest are hired through our vineyard management company. Some have been with us for over 20 years. Like other high-end Napa Valley vineyards, we have high-touch vineyards, meaning many passes through each vine row are done every year. We employ one full time employee for about every 5-6 acres. We will hire directly or indirectly more people for peak labor times.”
Says Gamble, “Starting wages in Napa vineyards for those with no experience have for a long time been the highest in the industry and well above the minimum wage. It is now at or beyond the $15/hour rate, which officially doesn’t take effect in CA until 2023. This has ripple effects up the wage scale. The question now becomes will wine buyers support the increasing costs by paying more for a bottle of hand crafted Napa wine? If not, sustainability, the harmonizing of people, planet and profits becomes wobbly.”
Regardless of what happens in the future, there is no disputing that Napa is able to pay labor more, because the buying public is willing to pay pretty much whatever price Napa puts on the bottle.
Gamble’s perspective on the labor situation takes into account the cyclical nature of the economy, which directly impacts labor availability and wages. “The long-term trend beginning in the early 20th century of a diminishing amount of labor available for farms has seen many interruptions. The last interruption was the recent great recession. Ten years ago, around 2007, just before the recession, we saw the same challenges of finding labor, as the economy and labor demand peaked. After a decade lull, the trend has resumed with a new agricultural industry (i.e., marijuana) adding to demand for skilled farm labor.”
He observes that marijuana cultivation requires a similar skillset to that of vineyard management. “Assuming continuing legality, cannabis will increase its demand for labor and is a commodity that is many orders of magnitude more valuable a crop than wine grapes, and thus the producers can afford to pay more,” Gamble worries.
Gamble predicts that the overall number of farm workers will likely continue its more than 100 year decline as demand from other industries increases and offsetting advances in technology are employed. “Those who continue to pursue a life amongst the vines will learn greater skills and earn higher compensation,” he adds.
But that’s Napa. And what applies there, applies almost nowhere else. This is especially true for the smaller producers in winegrowing regions that don’t attract premium dollars for their fruit, as do Napa and Sonoma. Even if you can afford to hire your own crew and keep them employed year-round, as do Paul and Maggie Bush of Madroña Vineyards in the El Dorado Foothills outside of Placerville, CA, labor is a constant struggle. They work a family farm of 85 acres in El Dorado Hills, established in 1973, including vineyards and Christmas trees. They employ a 15-person crew full time, and consider themselves among the fortunate few. Says Bush, “If this labor situation continues, it will mean the death of the small farmer.”
DEUS EX MACHINA
The overriding message that came out of this discussion was that mechanization is inevitable. It is already the reality for most of the larger gorillas in the business, but even the boutique vineyard installers know it is the watchword of the future. But it will come at a heavy price.
Winegrower Borjón says he will not install any new vineyards in Amador County without proper trellising for mechanical harvesting. “I tell people you are going to have to pay more for labor each year, so prepare for mechanical now.”
Yet, he cannot bear to pull out the thousands of head-trained vines, including old vine Zin and Barbera that add such charm and beauty to the fabulous foothills, and help give Amador its unique flavors. “We have to change the way we farm,” says Borjon. “We have to fight tradition. And this will not be easy.” He is also experimenting with aggressive leaf pulling, rather than shoot thinning, to mitigate labor costs. “Sustainability is taking on a whole new meaning!” he says, wryly.
But mechanization does nothing for people like Martha Barra whose vines are not set up for it. “We have no choice: our precious north coast Pinot cannot be harvested mechanically. All our new vineyards are going in for mechanical, but those 28 acres of new vines still need to be lovingly nurtured in their youth. And that can only be done by experienced labor.”
Inman is also very skeptical of mechanical harvesting. “When I planted my vineyard, we put in metal posts and made sure that we could harvest mechanically if needed, but I am very fussy with how the grapes are picked (no knives, only secateurs) and demand we presort in the vineyard. Mechanical harvesters don’t do that!”
Steve Ponzo, Grower Relations Assistant for Constellation Brands, manages around 78 ranches comprising hundreds of acres of vineyards in Lake, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma. “There’s no doubt many of the larger vineyards are already set up for mechanical harvesting.” Others are converting to mechanical in small blocks, but that requires labor, too. “It takes time to cut the spurs to get ready for mechanical,” Ponzo notes.
“Growers are also looking at mechanical pruning, although it’s still pretty new. There are tractor implements for underwire weeding, but most people are still using Roundup. The organic guys are using Weed badgers. People are seeing the writing on the wall. Your mind is definitely on mechanization,” he notes.
Gamble has a different take on mechanization. “In Napa, grape growing and wine making is an act of passion. Sensory judgment related to the craft and art of vineyards and wine is not mechanical. Production of world-class grapes and wines requires a human’s presence in both vineyard and winery. The tools are evolving, and operating those tools requires higher skills. Those skillful operators become ever more an integral part of keeping Napa at the pinnacle of wine.”
End of the Line?
The Borjón family, whose ancestors are French, is the perfect example of immigrant dreamers who make their new adopted country greater than it could ever be without them. Borjón’s great, great grandfather migrated to Mexico in the mid-1860’s, during the French/Mexican war. Isy’s father, Jesus, whose family comes from Paracuaro in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico, moved with Isy’s mother, Nora, to the Shenandoah Valley of Amador over 30 years ago.
Working the vineyards in every job imaginable, while Nora cared for their three children, Jesus began his own small labor contracting business in 1991. Today, Isy runs his Dad’s highly successful Borjón Labor Contracting and Vineyard Management.
But he is understandably worried about the future. “If we had all the labor we used to have, everything would be great! Agriculture in America was built on the back of immigrant labor. Then it gets taken away. It’s like taking all the toys away from a kid: the backlash is going to be ugly!”
Would he encourage his own children to follow in his footsteps? Not so much, says Borjón. “I would like my kids to go to school and hopefully go off to do something else that I wasn’t able to do. But this, this is all I know.”