Harvest Wars

Vineyards losing labor to marijuana growers, who promise easier work for better pay

by Bill Ward
wine grape vineyard growing mendocino labor machine harvesting
Wine grape growers and marijuana farmers need labor at the same time of year, according to vineyard managers in Northern California.
Boonville, Calif.—California’s marijuana and grape growers are at odds over more than water. They also are vying for the same labor pool at harvest time.

Travis Foote, general manager of Vineyard Logistics, said his Mendocino County vineyard-management company started this year’s harvest in mid-August with 22 pickers. Less than six weeks later, he was down to eight.

“The marijuana pay is much better, and the work is much easier,” Foote said. “They pay cash, and people can do the work from home a lot of the time. Marijuana doesn’t require a lot of labor the rest of the year, but when we need workers the most, they need workers the most.”

The problem is particularly acute in Mendocino County, especially the remote, sparsely populated Anderson Valley. A perfect storm of factors makes getting reliable help harder: a smaller labor pool, a proliferation of marijuana growers and myriad issues with the vineyards, which are often too small and too remote for mechanized harvesting. In addition, many producers of Pinot Noir—the region’s No. 2 cash crop (the Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association reports 1,736 acres under vine, while the cannabis acreage is, not surprisingly, hard to calculate)—strongly prefer to get their grapes in whole clusters.

“Machines do not pick clusters; they pick berries,” said Webster Marquez, owner/winemaker at Anthill Farms. “That results in a fundamentally different wine, alien to anything I make now and different from the way Pinot Noir is made everywhere.”

The status quo is hardly optimum, though. Marquez said that at one vineyard he uses, the grapes this year were picked eight days later than he had requested, which also results in a decidedly different wine. “I’m terrified” about looming mechanization, Marquez said. “Artisans who want things done by hand are going to have to pay up more than we already are.”

It’s a recent but not new dilemma in the northern reaches of wine country. Two years ago, prisoners from the Mendocino County Jail were enlisted to pick grapes. And the quandary goes beyond a pot-versus-Pinot skirmish.

“When we’re picking grapes out there in the middle of the night or early morning, that’s difficult manual labor,” Foote said. “It’s really hard work and long hours, so they go find something else.”

A changing landscape
Migrant workers also are becoming more the exception than the rule, as wineries, growers and vineyard-management companies have been shifting to full-time crews.

Most of the laborers at La Prenda Vineyards Management in Sonoma, Calif., work 11 months per year, said owner Ned Hill. “We’re in a big labor shortage and have done everything we can to make them full-time employees.”

Marquez added that the migrant-labor pool “has slowed down practically to a trickle. Fewer people are living that lifestyle. They get tired of it and want to settle down.”

That’s why Hill and others have ratcheted up the machines. La Prenda, he said, has gone from no mechanized harvesting five years ago to more than 30% now. He is still seeking part-time workers, but in a different season. “We’re starting to see high-school kids making eight grand in a summer instead of playing Pokémon Go,” Hill said. “But harvest time, that’s where mechanization will continue to rise without a doubt.”

In the meantime, La Prenda still hires some migrant workers to pick grapes, and doesn’t have as many go to pot thanks to its location in the southern half of Sonoma.

“We’ve only had a couple of people I’m aware of,” Hill said. “The further north you go, as you start getting north of Santa Rosa, it is increasingly a problem.”

As a result, growers are paving the way for increased mechanization. Most vineyards planted from the mid-1990s through 2010 or so “were set up for hand-harvesting,” Hill said. “Now that this labor thing is really real, most people are planting vineyards the way we used to, with wider spacing, better set up for mechanization.”

A growing problem
That doesn’t help much in the western half of Mendocino.

“In the Anderson Valley we’re kind of isolated, with a lot of vineyards up in the hills,” said Foote, whose company is based in the appropriately named hamlet of Boonville. “It’s difficult to do mechanically. There’s always a need for more employees.”

Finding those employees is getting tough, and keeping them even tougher. This harvest season, Marquez said, “wasn’t apocalyptic but terrible and annoying, more of a pain-in-the-ass problem. They’re usually not walking off a vineyard straight into a grow house. They walk off because they aren’t making enough money.”

Marquez has some hope that the matter will be alleviated by the recent initiative in which voters legalized recreational marijuana in California. “My guess is that pot growing will go to the cities, to big warehouses with grow lights so they can grow it 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” he said.

Not so fast, Foote said. “People up here aren’t going to stop growing marijuana or selling marijuana,” he said. “For them it’s a way of life.”

Posted on 11.22.2016 - 07:50:19 PST
Labor shortage in a state with 5.5% unemployment? Seems like there's a solution to this problem.

Posted on 11.22.2016 - 08:02:02 PST
I think the name of the publication should be changed to 'Wines, Vines, and Weed' since weed is going to be so prevalent now. I am not a consumer of weed products but we know where this newly legal intoxication is going.
Teresa Turner

Posted on 11.22.2016 - 21:23:06 PST
Guest are you willing to pick grapes?