Labor Issues in the Russian River Valley

Gantz Family Vineyards, ready for harvest 2017.

Gantz Family Vineyards, ready for harvest 2017.

The labor concern has been a topic in Russian River Valley for a while. Lately, it’s been a pressing issue due to the aging of the existing labor force, Mexico’s improved economy, and the current political climate. We're hearing stories about crews being overbooked and having to leave a field before it's completely picked. In other circumstances, the harvest takes longer and the crew isn’t available at the time the next field is scheduled.

We attended the Russian River Valley Winegrowers annual Paulée dinner last week (which was super fun!) and everyone's talking about the current heat wave, which is rushing harvest, and the lack of labor. Winemakers are saying "pick now" and there can be up to a week delay before it actually gets done. That can dramatically change the ripeness and amount of sugar built up in the grapes, as you can expect. Plus the danger of sunburn and predation is higher once you've raised the bird netting and leafed to make picking more efficient. All those ripe grapes are exposed to weather, birds, raccoons, opossums, turkeys and whoever is interested in eating the delicious fruit of our labor.  

Clay and I are lucky with our small space, but even four acres is more than the two of us could do in a night. We'll be out there with the crew at any rate. They work so quickly and methodically, but don’t have the time to get every single available cluster, many which are hiding behind leaves. Remember, it’s dark out at 2:00 a.m.! We follow behind them to pick up what they missed.  

This year we might end up doing even more, leaving the talented crews to do the most important job. We might be lifting the bird netting and leafing by ourselves. That was fun last year and I think I have a pretty good handle on it, but it’s still a lot of work for two people who haven’t seen our 20’s for a long while. We just need to be prepared to work quickly and efficiently to prepare the vineyard for harvesting. Too bad all the grandkids are in school!  

There is more talk in the local industry about mechanical harvesters. People are discussing the possibilities of co-ops, leasing from vineyard managers and other creative ways of sharing one of these very expensive pieces of equipment. Of course, they still need operators and obviously can only do one vineyard at a time. If three vineyards are all told to harvest at the same time by three different winemakers…well, you can see the problem. Owners of smaller vineyards like ours may find mechanical harvesting a real challenge and most people would prefer to harvest by hand, but in the current climate, we may not have any options.

We don’t talk about politics much in these blogs, but we encourage the federal government to get its act together and pass reasonable immigration reform that allows for the workforce that we in the agricultural community rely on. Putting politics before practicality is a recipe for disaster. Some states have tried to farm without immigrant labor and it’s been a calamity.

In an LA Times piece written by Russ Parsons, he states "According to the latest statistics compiled by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the state produces almost half of all the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the country, as well as a whopping share of the livestock and dairy.” It’s not realistic, in fact virtually impossible, to farm it without immigrant labor. These are not just strong back and willing hands, but individuals with the knowledge, expertise and experience base upon which we so strongly rely.

We need to set aside partisan politics to come up with a solution that works.