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North Bay Business Journal

Monday, April 22, 2013, 6:30 am

Growers start vine work early to avoid labor shortage

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    Given continued uncertainties around immigration policy in Washington and Sacramento and the budding of a 2013 crop that could be decent-sized, North Coast winegrape growers are looking for ways to stretch labor farther so they aren’t as short-handed as a number were during the record-volume 2012 season.

    Nord Vineyard Service in Napa had a difficult time finding workers in July of last year for vineyards managed in Napa Valley as well as some in Sonoma County and Suisun Valley, according to Julie Nord. One factor was a more lucrative cherry harvest elsewhere in the state. This year, the blueberry harvest in the Delta and return of construction after more than five years are siphoning off workers.

    “We’re trying to make sure we hire on a little earlier and work later because it was difficult to find workers during the season,” Ms. Nord said. The company’s field crews currently employ 40.

    Napa-based Silverado Premium Properties, which owns more than 2,000 acres of vines in the North Coast and elsewhere in California, is focusing on starting vineyard tasks earlier in the year — pushing the envelope on preferred schedules — to avoid the 20 percent labor shortfall in May of last year, according to Pete Opatz, vice president and senior viticulturist.

    “We’re getting started earlier in suckering (removal of excess vine shoot growth) and green removal, which would normally take off a month from now, to soften demand later,” he said.

    He and other growers are watching proposals in Sacramento to bring 40-hour work weeks to agriculture, up from 60-hour maximum allowed under current law.

    Healdsburg-based Bevill Vineyard Management, which farms about 1,000 acres of vines for clients in Dry Creek, Alexander and River Valley valleys, also found itself about 20 percent short on labor throughout the 2012 season.

    “We made up the difference with mechanical harvesters and favorable weather,” Duff Bevill said, noting the latter was essential to bringing in the record-sized crop. “If the weather was not good, allowing harvest to progress slowly, then mechanical harvesters wouldn’t have made up for it.”

    Indeed, as concerns mount about aligning vineyard farming costs with grape and wine prices as well as finding large numbers of specially skilled seasonal employees, advancing technology in mechanized vineyard tools for top labor-intensive tasks such as harvest, pruning and leaf removal. Machine harvesting came to the North Coast in the 1970s and had peaks in acceptance in 1989, when labor couldn’t get grapes into wineries fast enough to stave off rot on rain-soaked grapes, and last year, when the size of the harvest and shortage of help would have led to delays in picking of a couple of weeks, according to Mr. Bevill.

    Balletto Vineyards west of Santa Rosa hasn’t had many labor issues as one of the few United Farm Workers signatory vineyard companies in Sonoma County, according to John Balletto. Though the company has mechanical harvesters, a number of clients demand handpicked fruit, he said.

    The next frontier is pruning, a task that has become an artform with the most accurate and fastest pruners being feted in grower association championships. Yet eyes are on a robotic pruner project funded by Trinchero Family Estates, Vino Farms, Lange Twins Vineyard Management and Sunview Vineyards.

    “It would take 20 to 25 percent of vineyard hours out,” Mr. Opatz said about the several-acre test undertaken in Lodi last winter. “It’s a big deal.”

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