Decline in immigration felt in vineyards

  • From left, Fidel Vargas, George Garcia and Fernando Guido prepare to fertilize grape vines at the B Wise Vineyards near Agua Caliente, Friday Sept. 14, 2012 during a lull in the grape ripening process before harvest. The workers are part of Enrique's Vineyard Management. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

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.

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