Sonoma County vineyard companies look to foreign visa workers to fill void in tight labor market
In the small town of Redwood Valley north of Lake Mendocino, Martha Barra has tried almost everything to recruit vineyard workers to her Redwood Valley Vineyards.
Barra has canvassed the local Mexican restaurants and advertised in Spanish-language newspapers, which resulted in a few employees. She has reached out to the Mendocino County Jail for inmates to work on her more than 300 acres, which feature cabernet sauvignon vines that go back more than 60 years. A few of those men were later hired after they completed their sentences.
She has relied on outside labor contractors, which later backfired. “We found that unsuccessful, as they would tell us they would be here on a Tuesday with 15 men, which is a good crew. Maybe five would show up, or maybe none at all,” Barra said. “It became critical that we have reliable help.”
Fed up, Barra turned this year to the federal H-2A program, which allows agriculture employers to hire foreign guest workers for jobs lasting up to 10 months. Seven workers from Mexico arrived May 8 at Barra's farm to help out on tasks in advance of this year's grape harvest.
The results so far have been positive. “Our foreman is very pleased,” said Barra, who markets her wine under the Barra of Mendocino label to 35 states and four foreign countries.
Barra is not alone; other North Coast vineyard management companies and wineries have also jumped on the H-2A bandwagon this year, citing a dearth of available local farm workers. According to a tally from the U.S. Department of Labor's website, local businesses requested 291 foreign workers this year to work at Sonoma County farms through the H-2A program.
For example, Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg requested 24 workers, while Hirsch Vineyards in Cazadero needed four. The list includes others that have availed themselves of the program on a more longtime basis, such as the Dutton Ranch in Sebastopol, which requested 85 workers this year and Seghesio Family Vineyards in Healdsburg, which sought 40 workers.
The H-2A uptick comes as the state and region grapple with an extremely tight labor market as well as the realization that an immigration overhaul is unlikely to occur under the Trump administration.
“It's the only option. There is no avenue to take to get labor to work in the fields,” said Duff Bevill of Bevill Vineyard Management of Healdsburg, which brought in 24 workers from Mexico this year. “Seven or eight years ago, we would have people coming in for jobs and we would hire them.”
The trend is occurring statewide; a Los Angeles Times analysis this year found that California's total number of H-2A workers reached 11,000 in 2016, which was five times as much as in 2011.
To receive foreign workers through the H-2A program, employers must show that they cannot find U.S. workers to meet their labor needs. They must provide housing and actively recruit workers to bring in on a temporary legal basis. The employees are not undocumented, nor can they be admitted into the process toward citizenship. They are protected under federal and state labor laws, though labor activists contend the system is rife with abuse and helps drive down wages for local workers.
The H-2A program has typically been popular in other parts of the country, such as Florida, with its large citrus crop, and North Carolina, which besides its famous tobacco crop also produces Christmas trees and fruits and vegetables. Notably, Trump Vineyard Estates in Charlottesville, Virginia, owned by the president's son, Eric Trump, has used the program, asking for 23 foreign workers this year.
Until recently, California farmers have not been large users of the H-2A program. In 2015, California ranked fifth in H-2A usage despite being the top agricultural producer in terms of cash value.
Instead, California historically has relied heavily on undocumented farm workers. The U.S. Department of Labor's National Agricultural Workers Survey puts the number of undocumented farm workers historically at around 50 percent, but some surveys contend it grew as high as 70 percent in California, or as many as 560,000 people.
The North Coast has tended to attract a much less migrant agricultural workforce. The vineyard work attracts higher wages because the region's premium wine grapes are one of the most profitable crops in the state. That has allowed vineyard management companies to offer higher pay to lure workers with $13 to $15 an hour for entry level jobs and as much as $30 an hour during harvest. The state's minimum wage is at $10.50 an hour.
Those workers, in turn, have stayed in the community. A survey by the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group last month found the local industry employs 5,186 full-time workers, a number supplemented by 2,644 seasonal workers. The trade group said the hourly wage in the county is $16.34 an hour for vineyard employees.