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Training for Vineyard Supervisors en Español

Lake County, Calif., program stresses communication and negotiation

by Jane Firstenfeld
Following on the success of its Master Vigneron program (above), the Lake County Wine Commission is offering a two-day Spanish-language program for agricultural managers.
Lake County, Calif.—As many as 98% of California farmworkers are Spanish speakers, and most of their foremen and supervisors have risen from the ranks. Although supervisors are more likely to be bilingual, a large percentage of them remain most comfortable communicating in their native language. To bring professional management skills to these leaders in a way they can best appreciate, the Lake County Winegrape Commission (LCWC) will present Agricultural Labor Management—Cultivating Personnel Productivity, a two-day symposium Nov. 20-21, in Upper Lake, Calif.

Gregorio Billikopf, a Chilean native and labor-management farm advisor with the University of California since 1981, will lead the interactive event, which will be conducted entirely in Spanish. Billikopf is the author of “Labor Management in Agriculture: Cultivating Personnel Productivity,” which will be distributed to symposium attendees in either Spanish or English. He interacts frequently with farmworkers and agriculture business managers around the state.

In his introduction to the Lake County program, he wrote:  “There is much that farmers do not have control over, and what they do control, they control through people. How these people are hired, managed and motivated makes a huge difference.
“Labor management is much more than forms and paperwork. It is more about finding creative new ways of increasing productivity and reducing loss. About 40% to 70% of costs in production agriculture are related to labor costs. Thus, it seems that effective management of these costs plays a vital role in the competitiveness of agricultural producers.”

Speaking with Wines & Vines this week, Billikopf likened the role of supervisors in vineyards (or anywhere) to that of parents: Consistency and firmness are essential.

His goal for the Lake County event, he said, is to convey to his audience that, “To be a supervisor is tough work. You have to be willing for a while—not forever, but a while—to stand up against the people (your workers) who will push, insult and try to force you to allow them to produce work of poor quality, especially if you are paying on a piece-rate basis.”

An ardent advocate of piece-rate compensation for ag workers, Billikopf has published an article, available for free download: “Piece Rate Pay Design.” 

Subordinates, he said, “Will use different tactics to push a foreman to look the other way, and many foremen (of either gender) give in. They want to be loved by crews and don’t stand up. Speaking to a group of female foremen, I compared (the workers) to children who want to know where their limits are. A parent who is not sure or is just tired of fighting, in the end will fight 10 times more. Supervisors must be consistent and kind. You don’t have to be nasty, even if the workers are nasty. If you firmly stand for good quality, eventually the workers will thank you.”

The lectures and workshops at the upcoming event, he said, are designed to help supervisors learn to discipline employees with tact, gentleness and firmness, “So they cannot get away with anything.”

Billikopf’s newest book, “Party-Directed Mediation,” is available for free download in PDF form.

California’s little secret
Billikopf briefly addressed the nationwide ag labor shortage: “Partly it’s because in the past 15 years, states like Kentucky and the rest of the U.S. discovered the Mexican migrant workers who previously just came to the Western states. They discovered California’s little secret.”

He had scathing words for the current law of the land, the Immigration Reform Law of 1988, which he called “one of the most poorly designed laws ever written.”

The law, he said, favors “line cutters” who took shortcuts to live and work in the United States. “Only people who came in illegally (without a visa) and stayed illegally—and who could prove they had worked illegally—could take advantage of the law.”

Lake County invites all
Executives at the LCWC emphasized that the November program is open to agriculture supervisors from outside the county and outside the industry. Commission president Debra Sommerfield said, “The focus is on the whole region. We’ve reached out to organizations in Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties. And it’s not just for grapegrowers, but for pear-packing sheds” and other crops.

She noted, too, that this is not Lake County’s first venture into education in Spanish. For the past two years, LCWC has organized the Master Vigneron program. Brainchild of Randy Krag, who oversees some 3,000 acres of Beckstoffer Vineyards in Lake County, the certificate program is the first of its kind in California. In its first year, 12 students graduated and received their certificates, as did seven this year.

LCWC education director Paul Zellman likened the Master Vigneron (MV) certification program to that of a union journeyman. “Vineyard supervisors don’t necessarily go to the University of California, Davis, or even a junior college, but most of them have been doing the job for decades,” he said.

The MV program spans much of the growing season, starting in January at the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium, for the Spanish language breakout sessions and the dazzling trade show.

Most of the classrooms are literally “in the field.” “We get 10 people in a van and take them to wonderful opportunities in Lake County and beyond.” The field trips take them to UC Davis to visit clonal specialist Dr. Andy Walker, to the Novavine growing headquarters in Woodland and other key locations.

Zellman noted that, although 95%-98% of vineyard workers are primarily Spanish speaking, those who eventually rise to leadership positions tend to be those who are bilingual, because they can communicate with their employers. Still, Billikpopf cautioned, even bilingual speakers are usually more comfortable with their native tongue, and communication in Spanish will be more accurate.

“So often supervisors may be in charge of 10-50 people; they may not be able to leave the farm too much. When you add up the labor costs, it’s way more than fertilizer,” Zellman said. Employers will benefit from supervisors who are also mentors. “Trained supervision is a key tool for management. What does a sexual harassment suit cost you? What do heat stress injuries cost?”

Agriculture employers with candidates who would benefit from leadership instruction en español can find program details, costs and registration information here.

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