North Coast grape growers depend on foreign workers and machines for annual harvest
Under a cloudly marine layer, workers were out Thursday morning at Martinelli Winery's Zio Tony Ranch in Sebastopol, methodically picking pinot noir grapes to go into premium rosé wine available to buy next spring.
The scene has been repeated countless times through the decades as the North Coast wine industry emerged in the late 1970s as the region's top economic driver, generating billions of dollars of annual revenue through products and wine tourism.
This year's grape harvest, however, comes amid another tight labor market that has local vineyard managers burdened with worries, from housing scarcity in the aftermath of last year's wildfires to competition from the construction and cannabis industries.
The resourceful farmers they are, they still find a way to deliver the crop. For George Martinelli this year, it means going through a federal program to hire more than 60 seasonal workers from Mexico - mostly from the state of Michoacán - to ensure completion of his family winery's 33rd harvest. Those workers represent about two-thirds of his harvest workforce for 2018.
The program, known as the H-2A visa, has many requirements for wineries, such as placing ads in newspapers to ensure local residents know about the employment opportunities, to providing transportation from Mexico for seasonal workers, as well as temporary housing. There also are legal fees to ensure the winery doesn't run afoul of the U.S. Department of Labor rules.
“It's a pain in the butt,” Martinelli said of the visa requirements. “But it is something we have to do.”
This is the new normal for wine grape industry on the North Coast, where an estimated 5,200 full-time and 2,600 seasonal employees in Sonoma County will work through early November to deliver a crop that last year was valued at $578 million.
Area growers realize no new legislative relief is likely to emerge soon to help ease the worker shortage, especially given the congressional dysfunction in Washington, D.C. dealing with immigration reform. Instead, growers have figured out workarounds.
“Labor is a struggle,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, the main trade group representing local grape growers. Overall, farm employment in Sonoma County - the vast majority of which is connected to wine grapes - was down 4.3 percent annually since last July, according to the state Employment Development Department.
Many growers have increased their wages. Those who have available housing go the H-2A visa route to secure workers. Others rely on machines, which long term likely will replace many of the workers. Technology is expected to improve to allow mechanical harvesters to do almost every task - from pruning to leafing - with the precision demanded by discerning Sonoma and Napa winemakers.
“You are going to see technological changes - that no matter whatever challenges you see in the first machines - will continue rather than see a reversal in the labor situation,” said David Slaughter, a professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC Davis. Slaughter is leading the college's Smart Farm initiative to develop “smart machines” for the agriculture industry in California.
Local growers have grappled with a tight labor market for years, but the October fires put additional strain on the industry. Fortunately, the residences of vineyard workers were largely unscathed from major burn areas, Kruse said.
Still, there are effects beyond making the region even more unaffordable for working families. In the aftermath, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation provided up to two years of rent coverage for 11 families. Also, it bought three recreational vehicles for families to temporarily reside on agriculture land, Kruse said. And many of those who lost wages during the fires received gift cards to help with food and household items.
With home rebuilding ramping up, there is concern the construction industry will lure vineyard workers with promises of higher year-round pay. Pay for construction jobs can start around $20 an hour for entry level workers, according to those in the local construction industry.
“We believe it (construction) might have an impact, but specifically we haven't seen it or heard of it so far,” Kruse said. The emerging cannabis industry also could siphon farm workers as well, she said.
Growers aren't standing by idly. During harvest, wages can go as high as $30 an hour. During the rest of the year, pay rates have increased at many places from $15 to $17 per hour, said Steve Sangiacomo, a partner in Sangiacomo Family Vineyards, one the largest vineyard owners in terms of acreage in Sonoma County.