Latino music playing in the vineyards as the sun rises, men shouting to be heard over roaring engines as their hands move with the precision of a surgeon with scalpel cutting one cluster then quickly another. Trucks barreling along narrow country roads delivering grapes prior to the heat of day. The entire county smelling of grape aromas — earthy, fruity, sweet and floral smells permeate the air. 

Marie Gewirtz

Marie Gewirtz

Harvest is a time-honored tradition in Sonoma County. We have been an agricultural community for more than a century and a half, with profitable crops alternating between grapes, hops, prunes and apples. It is our heritage to celebrate the ripening of fruit, the completion of another growth cycle.

Each farming generation is faced with challenges. For the past years, ours have been issues of immigration and employment. Now with legalization of cannabis, we have a new competitor. So, what does grape harvest look like in 2019? What vision and planning are necessary to ensure success?

Kevin and Linda Barr established Redwood Empire Vineyard Management based in Geyserville in the early 1980s. Their company farms 1,500 acres within Sonoma County. 

Barr is concerned by the shortage of experienced people with necessary skills to pick wine grapes. Vineyard work, once generational, is changing with children of vineyard workers now having greater choices with other professions.

“Farm workers today are quite different than they were 20 years ago,” Barr said. “American Latinos aren’t generally interested in the hard labor of farming. We struggle with finding qualified people.”

Barr believes the future lies in hiring applicants of the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers program run by the U.S Department of Labor. This program allows U.S. employers to bring in foreigners who want to work to fill temporary agricultural jobs. 

“Like many colleagues, we’re investing in bunk units for housing men coming to Sonoma County for a 10-month on, two-month off work cycle from Mexico,” Barr said.

Participants chosen for this program are housed at no cost and able to support their families by sending the federal and state regulated pay of $14 per hour home to Mexico. Apparently, there is controversy as to whether this program improves lives with money for education, health care and greater opportunities for families back home. Or, is it a hardship to live without fathers and husbands for 10 months of each year? 

A viable alternative to labor shortage, Barr has invested in two Pellenc Harvesters that replace 100 men. Most growers agree that modern machines are extremely efficient, gentle on the grapes and vines and bring in cleaner fruit. 

What is clear is that whether growers make million-dollar investments for bunk housing or $450,000 per harvester, the human and economic aspects of grape farming in Sonoma County are drastically changing.

Mick Schroeter, head winemaker for Sonoma-Cutrer, points out that the labor shortage is compounded by ongoing construction of houses destroyed by the fires. They have an employee incentive program to attract capable workers, who when chosen are trained by the Sonoma-Cutrer vineyard team.  

Although Schroeter agrees that technology has greatly improved over the past decades, he can’t imagine a time when they won’t hand pick, too. 

“Touch points and hand labor will always be needed to make the quality and style of Sonoma-Cutrer wines,” Schroeter said. 

Parke Hafner of Hafner Vineyard said even with a full-time permanent crew, “We have been machine harvesting for 40 years.” Harvest is one of the least labor-intensive times for his crew, with hands-on labor more prevalent in other seasons of the vineyard. 

“Mechanical harvesting is the way, as our older guys aren’t being replaced. Many of our team came here in the 1960s and 1970s receiving amnesty and are now citizens,” Hafner said. 

“We’ve treated our crew over the years as we wish to be treated, offering everyone the same health and 401(k) plans, personal days off and vacation. We have no employee turnover,” Hafner said.  

He is concerned that, “Once a job is replaced by a machine, it is lost to labor forever. Necessity now demands mechanical leafers, harvesters, weeding, pretty soon it will take one person per 100 acres to farm, instead of the eight we now have.” 

As the labor force becomes scarcer, borders shut down and families who once invested their lives to the business of farming disappear, what is the future of grape farming? Watch for expanded views in upcoming articles.

Until then, savor the traditional sounds, smells and dynamic activity of harvest in Sonoma County. Cheers. 

Marie Gewirtz represents wine and food clients with marketing and communications in Sonoma County and throughout the world. She can be reached at winewords@sonomawest.com.

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