Mica Ridge Vineyard manager Brian Dickerson discusses vineyard practices with the four Amish workers he trained to tend the vineyard in 2012.
—Vineyard manager Brian Dickerson was running into a problem familiar to growers across the country: finding sufficient labor.
Heading into the 2012 season, Dickerson, who also has a career in real estate, was looking for a reliable crew he could train to his standards to help him manage the 9-acre Mica Ridge Vineyard from spring through harvest. Migrant labor wasn’t always reliable, and since the recession there were far fewer available workers. “We had a lot of challenges,” he told Wines & Vines. “I thought well, why don’t we reach out to the Amish community?”
Dickerson made some inquiries among the local Amish population and discovered there was strong interest. Because fast-growing Amish communities soon outpace the available work on their own farms, men must seek employment in the non-Amish world. Dickerson placed an ad in a local newspaper and quickly had a pool of applicants. “I was inundated with phone calls. I couldn’t believe the response I got,” he said.
While the Amish were willing to work, Dickerson wanted to make sure they could do the job well. He applied for and received a $5,000 grant from the local county economic development council to establish a training program. Mark Chien, a viticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension, helped organize viticulture classes.
Following a few sessions about the fundamentals of pruning and other vineyard work, Dickerson said his crew of four Amish—two men in their 20s and two older gentlemen—got to work.
When your workers can’t drive
It quickly became apparent that the biggest hurdle with an Amish work crew is transportation. Dickerson said he had to pick up the men, adding about three hours to his day. While several taxi companies catering to Amish serve the region, the added cost made that option unfeasible.
Dickerson ferried his workers to the job site until he found an out-of-work surveyor who was willing to help him with vineyard work and pick up the Amish as well. That worked out great, until the surveyor found work at another job site near the end of the season, and Dickerson had to finish harvest driving the Amish himself.
Once at the work site, however, Dickerson said the Amish crew performed admirably. He said they took to the work quickly and were inquisitive about all aspects of vineyard work from pruning to shoot pulling to harvest.
He said that as their manager he needed to understand the Amish calendar, which has its own distinct holidays, and keep in mind that weddings and funerals are sacrosanct and not to be missed no matter what day of the week or how much work there may be in the vineyard. “Sometimes you get surprised,” he said.
There wasn’t enough work on the single vineyard he manages, so Dickerson partnered with nearby Paradocx Vineyard
to keep the Amish working, and occasionally the crew was sent to help out other vineyard managers. “Between the two, we kept the crew busy all year,” Dickerson said.
Compared to migrant workers, Dickerson said communication was much easier, and so was paperwork, as the Amish pay regular taxes and don’t mind receiving paychecks. Their communities also opt out of state-mandated workers’ compensation insurance, so Dickerson said there’s a bit of additional savings there as well. He said he paid them $10 per hour for their labor.
Excellent workers, but not the fastest
Dickerson just secured a lease on another 15 acres of vinifera vines, and he’s currently deciding how he wants to staff his vineyard operations for 2013.
The Amish do excellent work, but Dickerson concedes there are a couple of challenges. “They are much slower than many of the other crews out there,” he said.
Dickerson said he has certain benchmarks for how vines should be worked and how many rows he expects a worker to finish in a shift. The Amish, while they did an excellent job and did everything to Dickerson’s standards, just never met those benchmarks. And no matter how much more experience they gained, they just never managed to work quicker.
Eventually, Dickerson came to understand it was a cultural difference. “One will not outwork another,” he said. “They work only as fast as the slowest man.”
The other concern is transportation, because Dickerson said he can’t spend three hours a day shuttling his workers and can’t afford to hire a taxi. He said he ultimately needs someone who can drive and still be able to pull a shift. “I think the biggest hindrance for me is the transportation issue,” he said.
Dickerson grew up in rural Ohio, and so he said he’s long been familiar with the Amish. The past harvest, however, gave him new insights into their unique culture. He said he’s always been curious why outsiders are referred to as “English” when they could be Irish, Italian or some other ancestry. The Amish replied that’s just what they call outsiders, and they had no idea why.
Dickerson said it’s that unquestioning adherence to custom that made the experience interesting, and what made the Amish such good vineyard workers. They did question Dickerson’s methods to vine cultivation, but only to fully understand how to best care for the vines. He said some of them even mentioned that they had changed how they pruned their own juice grape vines back at home after working with winegrapes. “They were really able to grasp why we made these cuts when we were pruning,” Dickerson said.