Slim Pickings

A seasonal migrant worker dumps a bucket of winegrapes into a picking bin at The Four Graces’ estate vineyard in Dundee during the 2009 harvest. A real shortage of workers is likely this harvest for many different reasons. Photo by Andrea Johnson.

By Peter Szymczak

The current forecast is calling for an early grape harvest this year because of another banner year of weather in the region’s vineyards. But when the grapes are ready to be harvested at their peak of ripeness, some worry there may not be enough pickers to pick them.

“There’s going to be such a demand for workers, and there’s not going to be enough people to go around,” said Leda Garside, ¡Salud! services manager for Tuality Healthcare. “We saw that last year, and this year they may be competing with other industries. Usually grapes are the last crop, but people migrate, especially if they feel there’s not going to be enough jobs or too much competition.” 

For nearly two decades, Garside has been a pioneer in the delivery of health care to seasonal workers in Oregon’s vineyards. She’s prescribed medicine to three generations of workers and witnessed, firsthand, the growth of the industry from the field worker’s perspective.

Her observations were validated from a statistical standpoint by a recently published study, which reported the number of migrant and seasonal farmworkers has decreased by approximately 13 percent over the past decade. In 2002, there were estimated to be 103,453 workers versus 90,289 in 2012, according to “Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker Enumeration Profiles Study” by Dr. Alice C. Larson. 

It’s a surprising discovery, considering how over the same time period, Oregon’s wine industry has doubled in size with approximately twice the number of wineries and acres planted. Yet despite perennial labor shortages, somehow Oregon’s vineyards manage to make do.

“It takes X amount of people to pick however many tons. Spread out over ten days or 20, that makes the difference between a shortage and not a shortage,” said Allen Holstein, senior vineyard manager at Argyle Winery. 

“It’s always a scramble, but it depends on the weather,” Holstein continued. “If everyone wants to pick the day before a rain, then that would be a problem. If it’s spread out over 20 days, it will still be a scramble, but we’ll get through it.”

This year could prove more challenging, however, due to several factors that appear to be further depleting the pool of laborers.

Holstein, Garside and others have heard about undocumented workers packing up and returning home. Some fear being deported if caught driving without a license —Oregon’s legislature recently passed a law giving undocumented workers the right to obtain a driver’s license, allowing them to legally drive; however, it doesn’t go into effect until Jan. 1, 2014. Other workers are returning to Mexico because economic conditions are improving south of the border. 

“The Mexican economy has been gaining strength in manufacturing, so there is a draw for laborers into those markets and the associated support economies that kind of growth stimulates,” said Joey Myers, son of longtime winegrower Joel Myers and second generation of Vinetenders, a vineyard management company overseeing more than 200 acres in Oregon’s north Willamette Valley. 

“Couple this shift with increased border security on the U.S. side, and higher costs and risks for individuals to cross from the Mexican side, and you have less people coming in to look for work,” Myers continued. “The fields are usually the first place people will find work, and if they have opportunities to move into other service industries, in many cases they do.” 

While some workers are moving away, others have moved up and out of seasonal labor altogether.

When the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed in 1986, many undocumented workers became legal. The law awarded green cards to about 2.7 million immigrants, including about one million farmworkers. Since then, the children of these legalized workers have had more opportunities and better education, thus allowing them to rise out of the culture of seasonal work. 

“A lot of the children of vineyard workers, if they’re not in college, then they’re going to work in other industries,” Garside said, citing high-tech and medicine as more attractive employment options. “That third generation is going a whole different direction. Some will continue to work in the vineyards, but many more of them will work at another level, either tractor drivers or a different task because of their experience in other fields.”

The increasing shortage leads many to talk mechanization. 

“There is no doubt mechanizing certain aspects of our vineyard work will occur in the future growth of our industry,” Myers said. “There is a younger generation of growers who have experience integrating and managing these systems, in many cases in other winegrowing regions of the world. This labor shortage we are experiencing is not as severe as those in Australia and New Zealand or most of Europe.”

According to Myers, winegrowing regions around the world have managed to adopt more mechanized production without sacrificing quality. 

“Even in the past five years, there have been major shifts in the harvester and optical sorting technology,” he added. “Top producers are integrating these technologies into their programs and producing wines that can be matched only by the best in the world. These wines are on the shelves and wine lists next to the finest Oregon Pinots. 

“Many of our vineyards already have the architecture conducive to being managed economically through mechanization. In developing vineyards, it is (or should be) part of the conversation.”

Holstein agreed: “It’ll take more automation than is currently happening, and more flexibility when it comes to picking.”

Until these technologies can be deployed, however Oregon will have to continue relying on a workforce of pickers that is shrinking and aging.

If this year’s weather forecasts hold true, Myers and Holstein expect an earlier than usual harvest, beginning in late September and culminating the first couple weeks of October. A warm and dry pattern is predicted to continue into the fall, which should work in the growers’ favor. 

“The worst labor shortages have occurred in the last few years when everyone is holding out for ripeness, and a major rain event on the horizon causes everyone to call in all their fruit at once,” Myers said. “This is when the 50-to-60-ton day you have scheduled turns into a 15-ton day, with just 20 of the 50 or 60 individuals you need to get the job done. On those days, no one is happy, and the end result is that some of that fruit, which we have worked very hard all season to produce, gets left out in the rain — or, in some years, the heat.”

Even if nature complies, there may not be enough hands to pick the grapes ready to be harvested during their limited window of time.

“The best indication is to watch other time-sensitive fruit crops, and see how they do for labor as the season progresses,” Myers said. “Already this year, there have been serious shortages in strawberries and in the fresh-market blueberry and cherry crops.” 

“Every year there’s a shortage of workers,” Garside said. “I hear it all the time. So what I think the industry needs to think about is, if the industry is going to continue to grow, you need to question the quality level of the wines that you’re making. We know [winemakers] prefer hand labor to mechanization. Will more people go to mechanization? Is that how they will deal with the shortage of workers? We know people want to grow fruit a certain way and maintain the high quality of the wines.” 

That’s the question that needs to be answered: Where are they going to get the workers? 

Peter Szymczak reports on food, drink and travel experiences around the Northwest and beyond. He’s the regional editor for Sip Northwest Magazine and a contributor to The Oregonian.

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