Posts Tagged: labor
Wine grape growers in California and elsewhere face increasing labor costs and severe labor shortages, making it difficult to manage and harvest a vineyard while maintaining profitability. Growers are increasingly turning to machines for pruning, canopy management and harvesting, but how well these practices are executed can substantially affect yield and quality. A new review by researchers at the University of California, Davis, published in the journal Catalyst, provides guidelines for growers to make the best use of machines.
“Wine grape laborers have been virtually nonexistent. People don't want to work in vineyards anymore because it's remote, tough work,” said Kaan Kurtural, UC Davis professor of viticulture andenology andUC Cooperative Extension specialist. “There is now machinery available to do everything without touching a vineyard.”
Kurtural has designed a “touchless” experimental vineyard at the UC Davis Oakville Station to help growers understand how machines can help them cope with the labor shortage. While machines reduce the need for seasonal manual labor, they do not eliminate it. The degree of labor reduction depends on growing region, grapevine type and the number of practices growers mechanize.
The review provides guidance on using machines for winter pruning, canopy management and harvesting as well as how to design a grape vineyard for machines before planting. Videos showing the operation of different types of machinery and practices can also be found in the review.
Economic savings, quality grapes
About 90% of the wine grapes crushed in the U.S. are mechanically harvested. Previous studies have found about a 50% savings in labor costs from using machines to harvest instead of hand harvesting.
“Using more mechanization in a vineyard beyond just harvesting can also reduce labor costs without affecting grape quality.” Kurtural said.
Mechanical pruning, for example, can save between 60% to 80% of labor operation costs per acre compared to manual pruning alone. One experiment in the San Joaquin Valley, where more than 50% of California's wine grapes are grown, also showed using mechanical canopy management machines to manage merlot grapes resulted in twice the amount of color. The more color, or higher anthocyanin concentrations, the better the quality. It can significantly improve returns from vineyards in California's heartland.
Kurtural said there are machines available to manage canopies, including machines for leaf removal, shoot thinning and trunk suckering. Kurtural noted that the machines are American made, developed by researchers at the University of Arkansas and commercialized by manufacturers in Fresno and Woodland, California.
The review was co-authored by Matthew Fidelibus, UC Cooperative Extension viticulture specialist at UC Davis, based at UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center. Financial support for the research came from the American Vineyard Foundation and Bronco Wine Company.
A major expense in producing winegrapes is labor. Two UC Cooperative Extension experts appeared on the Jefferson Exchange radio program to explain how mechanization of pruning, leaf removal and shoot thinning, combined with mechanized harvesting widely implemented decades ago, will dramatically reduce the need for labor in California winegrape production.
"The minimum wage is going to increase to $15 per hour in 2022," said George Zhuang, viticulture advisor with UCCE Fresno County. Besides, it is getting more challenging for growers to find enough workers due to labor shortages and higher wages in other fields, such as construction.
The machinery for mechanized vineyards requires an investment of about $100,000, said Kaan Kurtural, UCCE viticulture specialist. At that cost, growers begin to break even after a year.
The biggest obstacle to mechanization is the way winegrape vineyards have traditionally been trellised. The cross arms get in the way of machines as they go through the vineyards. In a recent research project by Zhuang and Kurtural, the scientists converted a traditional system to single high wire and managed it with mechanical equipment.
"It was more profitable ... with the same, if not better, quality and value at the farm gate," Kurtural said. "The writing is on the wall for growers to adapt to this as quickly as possible."
Host Geoffrey Riley asked whether the labor savings will result in cheaper wine. Kurtural laughed.
"No," he said. "Wine prices are set by market demand. I don't think wine is an expensive beverage."
UC Cooperative Extension will hold workshops in Temecula Feb. 1 and 2 to help California farmers facing agriculture labor challenges stemming from wage and hour laws, joint liability, worker protection, workers' compensation, insurance and immigration issues and policies.
“Farmers are better prepared to face uncertainty in labor markets with up-to-date information and strategies for dealing with people management, and legal and regulatory issues,” said Ramiro Lobo, UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor in San Diego County and workshop organizer. Additional program partners are the California Farm Labor Contractor Association, Zenith Insurance Company and Wilson Creek Winery and Vineyards.
The workshops will be at Wilson Creek Winery and Vineyards, 35960 Rancho California Rd., in Temucula. “Challenges and Strategies in Agricultural Labor Management” runs from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 1. The program includes a review of labor management issues in Southern California, an update on labor laws, basic strategies for legal and effective hiring and orientation, and effective management of worker injuries. The event ends with wine tasting hosted by Wilson Creek.
“Management and Supervision of Personnel for Agricultural Operations,” will be offered in Spanish on Feb. 2. The program, intended for farm owner/managers and first-line supervisors, provides information on effective supervision and management in times of labor shortage, positive and clear communications, and preventing sexual harassment and bullying. Networking and wine tasting, hosted by Wilson Creek, conclude the program.
“Properly managing personnel is critical because of the scarcity of labor,” Lobo said. “We will provide strategies to retain employees by making the workplace more attractive.”
Advance registration is available with a credit card online. Registration for the Feb. 1 workshop is $80 per person before Jan. 20, and $100 after or at the door, if space allows. Registration for the Feb. 2 workshop is $60 per person before Jan. 20, and $80 after or at the door, if space allows. A registration discount is available for participants to attend both events. For both events, registration is $120 before Jan. 20, and $140 after or at the door, if space allows.
For more information see the San Diego County Small Farm website.
No matter what happens with immigration reform, the United States will likely suffer a shortage of farm labor in coming decades, reported the Washington Post. The story was based on a study titled "The End of Farm Labor Abundance" by Edward Taylor, professor in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics at UC Davis, UC graduate student Diane Charlton and Antonio Yúnez-Naude, professor in the Center for Economic Studies at El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City.
“It’s a simple story,” Taylor said. ”By the mid-twentieth century, Americans stopped doing farm work. And we were only able to avoid a farm-labor crisis by bringing in workers from a nearby country that was at an earlier stage of development. Now that era is coming to an end.”
Since it is unlikely that another labor pool can be found, and also unlikely that American demand for fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts will decline, farmers could turn in greater numbers to mechanical options, such as shake-and-catch harvesting machines, the study said.
Mechanical harvesting of cling peaches.
"(Border crossing) is more dangerous because of the drug cartels, our government is doing a better job of enforcing the borders and the Mexican economy is doing better," said Jim Lincoln, a vintner and former president of the Napa County Farm Bureau.
Phil Martin, professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, paints a different picture. He estimates the yearly number of farm laborers has remained steady in the last decade at around 800,000 people after it had expanded in the 1990s.
Martin is skeptical of perennial farmworker shortage warnings, finding no signs of diminished crops or fewer workers in a 2007 report, but five years later he says the farming community has hit "a period of uncertainty."