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Vineyards Lose Labor to Marijuana Growers

January 2017
by Bill Ward

Boonville, Calif.—California’s marijuana and grapegrowers 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 Anderson Valley. A perfect storm of factors makes getting reliable help harder: a smaller labor pool, a proliferation of marijuana growers and vineyards that are often too small and too remote for mechanized harvesting.

“I’m terrified” about looming mechanization, said Webster Marquez, owner/winemaker at Anthill Farms. “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. “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.”

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.

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.”

Meanwhile, 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.”

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. “They walk off because they aren’t making enough money,” Marquez said.

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