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As Wine Grape Harvest Begins, Calif. Growers Face Ongoing Farmworker Shortage

Julia Mitric / Capital Public Radio

Chardonnay grapes in Lodi, Calif.

Julia Mitric / Capital Public Radio

When you hear 'vineyard' you may imagine a leafy canopy with green tendrils along a vine.

But if you're talking about the vast acres of wine grapes planted in the Central Valley, then machines are also a central aspect of the winescape.

On a visit to Lodi this week, winemaker Steve Millier is checking on Chardonnay grapes that will one day be bottled for Ironstone Vineyards, a winery in Murphys in the Sierra Foothills. 

As Millier walks between leafy rows hung with grapes nearly ready for harvest, he points out the width and height of the rows. They're taller and wider because this vineyard is laid out for mechanical harvest, as are most vineyards in the Central Valley.

"There's a very short window of time that they can be harvested and taken into the wineries," says Millier. "And so the one way to speed that process up is to machine harvest. There's just not enough crews to hand harvest every single grape we grow."

Millier is also a vintner in his own right in the Sierra Foothills and he sees the impact of farmworker shortages up close. 

The vineyards' geographic location adds another wrinkle to the ongoing problem of being able to find labor. Being farther away from the pool of agricultural workers clustered in the Central Valley makes it even harder to attract them.

"In addition to doing a hard day's work, they've got to commit to an hour and a half commute each way," says Millier ruefully."It's like a reverse commute."

And where larger-scale vineyards on flat land can opt for mechanization, that makes less sense in the calculation of a smaller vineyard in the Sierra Foothills.

"Sometimes our vineyards are quite steep and they aren't very large," Millier points out. "How can we justify getting a machine into a small vineyard, much less something with quite a bit of grade to it?" 

Steve Millier _WINEMECH_081517PSteve Millier, winemaker for Ironstone Vineyards in Murphys, is pictured at the vineyards of Bear Creek Winery in Lodi, Calif. (Julia Mitric / Capital Public Radio)

Millier recently had a chance to see a demo of a custom European machine designed for picking and sorting grapes on hilly terrain. He was impressed. The machine had a tiny turning radius and an enormous price tag - nearly half a million dollars.

"That's the sticking point," Millier says, with a laugh.

But despite the ongoing shortage of farm workers, he takes the view that grape growers and other farmers will adapt new solutions as they have over many generations.

"Adversity can also be an opportunity," says Millier.

Roughly 80 percent of California's wine grapes are now mechanically harvested, according to John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Wine Grape Growers.

Aguirre expects that number to grow as a result of the labor pinch (and advances in technology). But he also points out that growers who cultivate the most expensive wine grapes will likely always harvest by hand. 
And as both Millier and Aguirre talk about, the shortage of farmworkers doesn't just hit home at harvest time.
Vineyard maintenance during the year requires pruning, wire-lifting and suckering (to remove green shoots along the trunk of the vine).
"You might put out a call for a crew of 12 workers and get eight instead," explains Millier. "And not always at the time you need them."

Aguirre expressed frustration over his recent trips to Washington, DC, where he's seen very little promise for bi-partisan, comprehensive immigration reform.

Still, Aguirre says, in his conversations with California's Congressional delegation "there is recognition that agriculture has a problem and we need a solution."

From Aguirre's perspective, a two-prong solution would be ideal.

One piece would be a guest worker program for agricultural workers. As farm workers age, there isn't a new generation stepping in to take those jobs for a variety of reasons.

The parallel piece would open a path to permanent resident status for current immigrant farmworkers who are willing to continue working in that sector. 

In his conversation with elected leaders of both parties, Aguirre says he underscores that native-born residents of the U.S. aren't willing to take on the demanding work of the fields and orchards.

Regardless of rhetoric, that reality is not going to change. 

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