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The vineyard crew was hard at work on the grounds of B Wise Vineyards in Sonoma Valley on Friday morning.

But they weren't picking grapes.

Instead, the seasoned crew of vineyard workers were tackling landscaping projects: installing a switch in a lawn irrigation system, planting trees and spreading fertilizers. On other recent days, they cleaned pools, cared for avocado trees and tended to the bees and chickens on the property.

Grape harvest is underway in Sonoma County, but it has yet to reach full-swing. So on the days when his crew doesn't have grapes to pick, Enrique Castillo, owner of Enrique's Vineyard Management, is sure to keep them busy.

"Our company, for field workers, we're really short-handed this year," Castillo said. "They work for me all year-round. They never stop. I keep them busy so they don't go, they don't leave me."

Castillo is one of many vineyard managers in the North Coast dealing with a dwindling supply of labor. Fewer workers are migrating from Mexico, and the number of people leaving the U.S. for Mexico now outpaces the number of those coming in, according to a report by the Pew Hispanic Center.

From 1995 to 2000, nearly 3 million people migrated from Mexico to the United States, while only 670,000 left, according to Pew estimates. But from 2005 to 2010, only 1.37 million came into the U.S. from Mexico, while a larger number, 1.39 million, returned.

"Like almost everyone, I've had problems this year," said Chris Bowen, vineyard manager with Hunter Farms in Sonoma Valley. "It's a concern, no question, especially considering that the crop looks like a pretty good size. Will we be able to get in there and get things picked at the time that the wineries, and we, want to be able to do it?"

Grape growers in Sonoma and Napa said the problem didn't begin this year, but they're starting to feel the impacts of tighter border restrictions that have been in place over the last decade.

Some have increased wages to attract workers. Castillo pays his crew $25 an hour for harvest work, well above the average wage of $14 an hour for North Coast grape pickers last year, based on figures reported by the state Employment Development Department. Others are trying to keep their crews employed year-round, with erosion management, pruning or odd jobs like chopping wood for mulch.

"A lot of the independent, little guys that need a crew for a day or two, they have a hard time getting any labor at all," said Alex Vyborny, owner of Vyborny Vineyard Management in Rutherford. "It's just that the supply coming across the border is not there."

Generally, around harvest time, migrant workers show up at the vineyards where they worked the previous year, said Manuel Rios, owner of Rios Farming Company in St. Helena, which has 200 employees.

"This year we haven't had any people show up," Rios said. "We've had to go out and find them."

Half of Rios' employees are permanent, while the others work 10 months. Rios pays $10 an hour to start, but wages for experienced workers range up to $40 an hour, he said. Permanent employees have health benefits, 401(k) retirement plans with matching employer contributions and paid holidays, he said.

The dwindling ranks of migrant laborers in Sonoma Valley prompted the La Luz Center to close its camp for seasonal vineyard workers this year. At its peak the camp, known as "La Posada," or "The Inn" in Spanish, housed about 80 men, said Kara Reyes, director of family services at La Luz Center. The camp began in 1995 when members of the community came together to help homeless migrants who were camping along Sonoma Creek.

But last year, the camp was down to about 20 seasonal residents, so staff talked with the men about finding alternative housing, she said. That enabled the nonprofit organization to focus on the 1,500 permanent vineyard workers it serves, along with thousands of family members.

"Traditionally, for 30 or 40 years in this country, there were people, mostly men, who immigrated here, worked for the season, and went home all winter," Reyes said. "Many of the vineyard workers became legal, got their status, and then were able to legally cross the border every year."

Castillo was one of them. He traveled from Mexico to the U.S. in the early 1980s for the first time at age 16, hoping to earn money for his family in Michoac?, who at times could barely afford to eat.

But his first year was grueling. He couldn't find work, so he stayed with some vineyard workers housed at Kunde, eight men to a room, cooking for them until he was discovered and kicked out. "I wasn't a very good cook, but I tried my best," Castillo said. Then he slept in the back of a friend's pickup truck for three months, unable to find work, with no money for food or a trip home.

Barely eating, Castillo became so ill that he couldn't open his mouth, move his arms or see, he said. A cousin brought him to a hotel in Santa Rosa, pried his mouth open with a fork, and fed him that way until he recovered several months later, he said. Castillo eventually found construction work, and was hired the next year to pick grapes at Kunde.

"It was so hard in those days," Castillo said.

But he persevered, began working for Madrone Vineyard Management in Glen Ellen, and worked his way up to foreman.

"I learned English very fast, and I tried hard, because the only way you can get a good job is to learn English," Castillo said.

Castillo, now 44, is married with two teenage children, and owns two homes in Sonoma. He became a citizen eight years ago, started his own company, and sent enough money to his parents over the years that they started their own successful avocado business.

Now, there are fewer people following Castillo's path. The weakened job and construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations and growing dangers associated with border crossings have contributed to the dwindling flow, the Pew report said.

"A lot of people have been deported. That's why we're shorthanded," Castillo said.

Companies are being audited more frequently, so employers are more carefully checking green cards, INS numbers and identification, Vyborny said.

"If you don't do that and somebody inspects your records, you're in big trouble," Vyborny said.

Meanwhile, the workforce is approaching retirement age. Many vineyard workers from Mexico have raised families here, and their children are more interested in going to college than working in agriculture.

"I don't see the children watching their parents come from a day in the fields and say, &‘That's what I want to be when I grow up,'" Reyes said. "It's honest work, and it's very humbling to witness, but it's very hard on their bodies ... it ages them much faster than the rest of us who get to sit in an office all day."

The labor shortage may become more apparent in the coming weeks, when harvest kicks into full gear. Larger grape growers report having enough field workers to get the work done so far, but they want more hands to stay on schedule as more varietals of grapes ripen, they said.

Castillo's crew of about 16 men is half the size that it used to be. At times, he has had to turn down jobs.

"I've been looking for people, because I want to make my harvest crew a little bigger, but I just can't," Castillo said. "If we don't have the manpower, we can't do it."

As harvest heats up, he'll turn to family members for help. He hopes his son, 17, will go to college and take over his business one day.

"It's been hard, but I love my job, I love my family, and I'm here," Castillo said. "I'm a very lucky man."

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