San Rafael, Calif.
Many California growers worry that sufficient labor will be scarce during harvest.
—Vineyard managers across California have had to scrounge for labor this spring, and many are concerned the scarcity of workers will last through harvest.
Jim Young, co-owner of Robert Young Estate Winery
in the Alexander Valley, said a contractor who usually can help the winery thin shoots on 150 acres only had the staff to work 75 acres. The winery has 317 acres of vineyards.
Young said he had to bring in tractor drivers, gardeners and anyone else he could find to finish the work. He said he’s not too far behind schedule, but he’s worried about having sufficient labor through harvest. “I don’t expect it’s going to be any easier,” he said.
Young said he’s not sure why he and other wineries and vineyards in the area are struggling to find the extra labor. “I just think they’re not here,” he said of seasonal workers.
It could be because the pool of migrant labor has dwindled in recent years. The PEW Hispanic Center released a report in April that claimed net migration from Mexico has come to a standstill and may actually be in reverse after decades of steady growth.
The report cites the downturn in the U.S. economy—especially housing construction as well as increased federal border enforcement, drug violence in Mexico and a long-term decline in birth rates—as reasons for the scarcity.
Greg Hibbits, general manager of Mesa Vineyard Management
in Templeton, Calif., said it’s been one of the tightest labor markets he’s seen. “This year has definitely been worse,” he said.
Hibbits wasn’t sure if it was because there’s a smaller labor pool or if workers have been lured to other crops such as vegetables. Wages are on the rise “across the board,” and managers have been offering more hours on the weekends to retain the workers they have. “It’s hectic right now,” he said. “At this minute there’s just not enough people to do what needs to be done.”
He said he expects to see a similar shortage in the fall.
Mesa has been using machines for harvest for several years. Hibbits said despite the labor shortage he didn’t expect to see much more demand for machines because most of the vineyards managed by Mesa are already being harvested with machines.
Towle Merritt, the general manager of Walsh Vineyards Management
in Napa, Calif., said a shortage in labor has been in issue for several years. He said Walsh expects to see an increase in demand for their harvesting machines, especially because they’re equipped with on-board sorting systems.
He added that at the start of the recession in 2008, Walsh decided to invest in the improved technology of harvesters. “What we found was that in many cases, the new technology translated into better results than what we could have achieved with traditional techniques,” he said. “Improvements in the actual technology are what made the difference.”
Merritt said labor has been challenging this year for many North Coast growers. That trend, as well as economic considerations, led Walsh to focus on mechanizing. “For the last 4 years, adoption of next-generation mechanization tools in the vineyard has been a high priority,” he said. “We do not see a scenario in the future were we can deliver on quality and price, without adopting some types of mechanization in our operations. We believe this trend has been here for a while and that this trend will continue.”
The labor shortage does not appear to have spread into the Northwest, although there are some concerns.
Connie Curtain, the general manager of Yakima Valley’s Hyatt Vineyards Winery
in Zillah, Wash., said labor had not been an issue at the winery, and she had not heard of any other growers in the area complaining about a scarcity.
She added that Hyatt, like other farms in the area, produces a variety of crops, so they can retain workers for longer periods of time.
In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Elk Cove Vineyards
vineyard manager Travis Watson said a potential labor shortage has received a great deal of talk by growers and winemakers. “We, however, haven’t had much of an issue yet,” he said.
Watson manages 250 acres of vines, which he said make Elk Cove’s operation large enough to sustain a full-size crew through the entirety of the growing season. “We do our best to get through the growing season without any layoffs.”