Classes in Spanish Aid Vineyards

Taught in their own language, skilled field workers gain deeper understanding

by Peter Mitham
pruning class Spanish Chemeketa Community College
Most students in Chemeketa’s Spanish-language vineyard courses already know how to prune, but instruction in their native language helps students understand why operations are done in a certain way.

Salem, Ore. -- Words such as phloem and xylem (and how to manage damage to them from extreme winter temperatures) may be hard enough to wrap your mind around in English -- but try explaining it to a vineyard worker whose first language is Spanish.

Vineyard managers have long grappled with the problem, which is why Salem-based Chemeketa Community College began offering courses taught in Spanish for vineyard workers in May 2003. “When you ask somebody to do a job, if they don’t understand why they’re doing it one way versus another, it’s hard to get a consistently good job all the way through,” said Bob Bailey, owner of Northwest Vineyard Service Inc., near Amity, Ore.

NVS has been sending workers to Chemeketa since the inception of the Spanish course offerings -- and before that to Spanish-language pesticide applicator courses held at the college. The classes offered have been a significant benefit to the industry, Bailey said. “Instructing the vineyard workers themselves in…the reasons we do things and how things work, helps them to do the jobs better and make better choices, if choices are given them,” he said.

Dr. Craig Anderson, director of agriculture programs at Chemeketa, said an industry task force spearheaded the development of the course, which has attracted 353 students during the past six years. “We felt that there was a need to develop courses of a technical nature that would be delivered in Spanish to the Latino vineyard worker,” he told Wines & Vines. “If you can learn something in your native language, you’re going to understand it more thoroughly.”

Anderson said most of the workers have the ability to perform the jobs they’re being asked to do. What the Chemeketa courses provide is an explanation of the rationale in a language that the workers can better understand. While many speak English well, it’s their second language, and explaining the concepts in Spanish is a better method to deliver information, he said.

“You have more productive vineyard workers,” Anderson said. “Because they do understand more of the technical nature of pruning a vineyard, for example, and some of the botany behind it, and more details of the technique -- rather than solely the technique -- they will be more productive workers.”

Courses cover topics ranging from tractor and equipment safety and pesticide application to vine physiology, pruning and canopy management. The courses typically take place for six hours on Saturdays at the Northwest Viticulture Center, where students receive both instruction and a chance to apply what they’ve been taught in Chemeketa’s 8-acre teaching vineyard. Enrollment for most of the classes is $62.

Students are usually sent by employers, but they don’t receive academic credits for participating in the courses. (Anderson added that Chemeketa, a public institution, doesn’t  require proof of citizenship for enrollment, which means undocumented migrants as well as legal workers may participate in the program.)

The majority of workers come from Mexico, but not all. Course instructor Juan Pablo “JP” Valot, assistant winemaker at Silvan Ridge-Hinman Vineyard in Eugene, said the diversity of backgrounds among students makes for a wide range of language skills. Students may have a good knowledge of standard Spanish -- or any one of a number of local dialects found in southern Mexico or Central America.

The mix can impede communication, but the Chemeketa courses help standardize the language that workers use in the vineyard, though even after the course some compromise is needed to further adapt the knowledge delivered to the languages spoken.

“They get on the same page,” said Valot, who also teaches a “Spanish in the Vineyard” course for English-speaking vineyard managers, giving them both Spanish and Mexican words to help them communicate with Latino workers.

Over the three years he’s been teaching the courses, Valot said many workers have shown measureable progress. One worker, who scored 30% the first time he took the pesticide applicators’ test, scored 55% following the Spanish-language pesticide course (one of the most popular offerings). The worker still required a 70% to pass, but the score marked a significant improvement.

Wineries have responded positively, too, because they see value in the courses. “The more the guys know, the better it is for them, the better the quality of the grapes,” Valot said.

“It’s always better to be smarter,” added Lee Bartholomew, vineyard manager at Archery Summit in Dayton, Ore. She typically sends five to nine workers per year for the tractor safety, maintenance and pesticide courses.
Bartholomew’s own Spanish language skills aren’t lacking, so the real value of the courses is giving vineyard managers the knowledge they need to communicate with workers, as well as educating and reinforcing the knowledge vineyard workers already have.

“If I haven’t taught it to them, there’s somebody else there to catch the things that I forget to teach to them,” she said.

In addition to the Chemeketa courses, the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium in February 2010 will offer a three-hour workshop that will touch on many of the same topics. Subjects will include instruction on tractor safety, vine physiology and pest and disease identification.

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