Sales of higher-end wines are making North Coast winegrapes a hot item, but availability of workers to pick them has fallen sharply, driving wages higher, according to a large vineyard owner in the region.
The average number of unskilled workers employed locally during the peak season of vineyard activity — generally, harvest — has fallen by about 50 percent in the past five years, while average wages for such jobs in that time have risen by almost the same proportion, said Eric Pooler, vice president for winery relations for Napa-based Silverado Investment Management Co., at North Bay Business Journal’s Wine Industry Conference in Santa Rosa on April 28.
This comes, he said, as several national, statewide and local forces are pulling on the North Coast winegrape workforce: tighter U.S. border security and immigration enforcement, ever-higher cost of living, competitive pay in other crops and industries, and new state labor rules that increase employer costs.
‘PRETTY STEADY DECLINE’
Based on informal conversations with vineyard-management companies, Pooler said he found the weighted average number of unskilled employed per firm slid to 128 in Napa County last year from 160 in 2012. In Sonoma County, it was a more precipitous drop, to 63 from 135.
“It’s a pretty steady decline across Napa and Sonoma counties,” Pooler told the conference audience of about 325. His company owns 21,000 acres of vines in California, New Zealand and Australia, including about 5,000 in the North Coast. “As the labor market’s tightened, employers are looking farther and farther away.”
DECLINING EFFICIENCY, RISING WAGES
To fill gaps in the field crews, farm labor contractors are having to bus in workers two to three hours, from Sacramento and San Joaquin counties in the Central Valley, he said. But with the longer commutes for harvesters are coming longer times to complete the same tasks.
“Experience levels are going down, so you’re getting less efficiency from your workers, because they don’t have as much experience in grapes,” he said.
This scarcity has been driving wage growth in Napa and Sonoma counties roughly 10 percent a year, Pooler said. Growers he talked to paid an average of $14.50 an hour for harvest help last year in Napa County, up from $10.75 five years before. In Sonoma County, the average was $13.50 last year, up from $9.75. So far this year, Napa Valley growers are paying $15–$16, and Sonoma County isn’t far behind, he said.
By comparison, California’s minimum wage rose to $10 last year from $7.50 in 2012. It went to $10.50 on Jan. 1 and is set to rise to $15 by 2022–2023.
“As workers are gaining leverage, their pace has slowed up, so the return on dollars is not as high as it has been in the past,” Pooler said. “If this pace continues, they’ll be making $20 by the time minimum wage reaches its peak, which is a huge cost to cover, if you’re a grower. Whether wineries will be able to come up with that in terms of sales to cover that remains to be seen.”
Add to that the new California farmworker overtime rules, he said. Signed in September and set to phase in between 2019 and 2025, AB 1066 calls for the same overtime rules in the fields as in the office or shop, past eight hours per day. For decades the threshold for ag generally was 10 hours a day.
Even as wages climb locally, farmworkers’ dollars aren’t going as far to keep roofs over their heads, Pooler noted.
For example, average apartment rents in Sonoma County are $2,000 and $2,500 a month for studios and two-bedroom, two-bathroom units, based on the latest figures from Scott Gerber of Bradley Commercial Real Estate. Meanwhile, the average farmworker is taking home roughly $2,400 a month, according to Pooler.
“It’s difficult to make those economics work,” Pooler said.
SQUEEZING THE WORKFORCE
And the average age of farmworkers is approaching the point when the physically demanding tasks are no longer feasible, he said. While women in the past five years have become a growing part of the vineyard teams — up to 30 percent for some companies — children of farmworkers may opt for a less-rigorous profession.
At the same time, a rebounding economy has swelled the job opportunities in the hospitality and construction industries, tapping the ag labor pool, Pooler said. Vineyard workers in the Central Valley have been gravitating to cherries and on the Central Coast to berries and vegetables such as broccoli and peas.
And some are estimating the emerging cannabis industry will suck in as much as 10 percent of Sonoma County farm workforce during the crunch time of the winegrape harvest, Pooler said.
SEARCH FOR SOLUTIONS
Some solutions can be done locally, but large factors can only be fixed in the national or state capitals, Pooler said. Border enforcement increased during the Bush and Obama administrations, and the Trump White House has been talking about an even tougher approach.
Local winegrowers have been advocating for reform of farmworker-entry programs such as the H-2A temporary ag worker visa. An estimated 400,000 farmworkers were needed last year in California, the nation’s largest agricultural producer. But only 134,000 H-2A visas were issued nationwide in fiscal 2016, according to the State Department.
Challenges of this type of visa is the “process is onerous and costly,” Pooler said. Often attorneys are needed to advise on the endeavor, the cost per worker can be more than $2,000, the delay before a worker can start work can be long and employers are required to provide housing and transportation.
The state overtime law may see more growers moving to more piece-rate compensation or cooperative employment, Pooler said. But a problem with piece rate is job quality.
“They may work faster but not necessarily better,” he said.
Cooperative employment may have some workers hired by one grower to work eight hours then be hired by a nearby grower to work two more hours to get to back up to the 10-hour previous industry standard.
Another labor-cost-cutting measure already employed in the North Coast is mechanization. The top labor cost in vineyards is harvest, followed by pruning, trimming sucker shoots, removing leaves and thinning shoots and grape clusters. Harvesters already are rolling through increasingly more North Coast vineyards that have accommodating row spacing, trellis design, vine positioning, ground slope and other aspects, and more new vineyards are being set up accordingly. Technology for accurate, delicate handling of vines and grapes are also appearing for leaf removal and other tasks.
But it’s going to take a paradigm shift for North Coast vintners to accept greater vineyard mechanization and other cost-balancing measures, such as higher vineyard yields, Pooler said.
“Mechanization is the key to the future,” he said. “There can be as much as 25 to 75 percent cost savings for individual tasks.”
Jeff Quackenbush (email@example.com, 707-521-4256) covers construction, commercial real estate and wine.