North Coast growers head into grape harvest with labor shortage as their top concern
As the grape crop hangs heavy on the vine, picking up color and sugar as the sun's heat ripens the fruit, vineyard managers are making plans, vintners and growers are getting restless, work crews are assembling. Trucks, tanks and equipment are being tested and positioned.
The 2017 harvest will soon begin. Added to the usual levels of adrenaline-fueled stress and anticipation is a new concern that has taken root over several years and this year is more insistent than ever - a shortage of labor to bring in the crop.
Vineyard manager Duff Bevill, who's preparing for his 44th wine grape harvest, got into the business because he loved farming. But Bevill, owner of Bevill Vineyard Management in Healdsburg, has found that many of his day-to-day duties have been shoved aside by the demand that he address a persistent shortage of field workers, critical to ensuring that the wheels of the wine industry - an outsize driver of the region's economy as well as a large chunk of its identity - continue to turn.
The reasons for the labor shortage are many, from stepped-up federal immigration law enforcement that began under the Obama administration to competition from less strenuous, higher-paying jobs. Also, the workforce steadily gets older, as the children of farmworker families opt to, and are encouraged to, go to college.
“Everything with it (labor) triggers all these issues,” said Bevill, who employs about 120 workers to work on approximately 1,000 acres around the Alexander Valley.
While Bevill and other vineyard managers see the effects of the labor shortage firsthand, the reverberations are being felt elsewhere across the industry as well. Winemakers, who know that how and when grapes are picked affect the wines they create, consider whether to resort to mechanized harvesting. Wineries, forced to pay more for workers by the law of supply and demand, must decide whether to accept less profit on a vintage or risk passing along the higher labor cost to consumers.
“Those grapes, which become wine, are our calling card,” said Ben Stone, executive director for the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. The wine industry brings billions of dollars annually into Sonoma County and nearby areas, especially through the tourism that comes with it.
“People come here for the wine we generate,” Stone added.
Getting the grapes picked
Vineyard managers hold a critical position in the process of turning grapes into wine. About 60 percent of vineyard owners in Sonoma County don't want to take on the tremendous burden and hassles of year-round vine maintenance as well as hiring and retaining workers, so these companies serve as a one-stop shop, ensuring that all the jobs required to ensure their grapes reach the winery crush pad get done.
To do such work, they need workers. Critical jobs include pruning vines in the winter, strategically removing leaves and managing canopies in the summer, and picking the grapes at just the right time come fall. According to the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group, the local industry employs 5,186 full-time workers and 2,644 seasonal workers, who come into the region just during harvest. Top workers during those two to three months can make as much as $30 an hour or more to pick grapes.
“You are pulling a lot more levers than you were pulling 10 years ago,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, of the strategies needed to ensure the grapes get picked.
To get by, growers and managers are using a variety of creative solutions, including use of more picking machines, which work especially well on valley floors, and temporary foreign workers through the federal government's H-2A visa program - almost 300 of them are working in Sonoma County this year. They also outsource some of their labor needs to outside third-party contractors to supplement their own workforce. Bevill says about 40 percent of his acreage is picked by machines and he brought in 24 workers from Mexico this year through the H-2A program, which allows agriculture employers to hire foreign guest workers for jobs lasting up to 10 months.
The worker shortage is clearly reflected in Bevill's evolving duties. He's part air traffic controller, as he juggles less-than-ideally staffed crews through crucial summer tasks before picking begins. Bevill for the past five years has had to rely on an outside farm labor contractor to provide backup workers.
He's part builder, as he looks to construct more bunkhouse housing for foreign workers to provide help in the fields.
He's part diplomat, as he has to work with winemakers who may not necessarily get their grapes picked at the exact moment they want unless they opt for machine-picked grapes.