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Developing a viable vineyard workforce for the future

By Richard Stup and Tim Martinson

Workers in a vineyard.Thirty workers arrive on a chilly March morning. They set to work quickly with minimal discussion – these are skilled employees who know their way around a vineyard. In fact, most of them have worked on this vineyard for several years in a row and they know what management is looking for. This doesn’t happen by accident: It happens because a team of progressive vineyard managers collaborates to plan out and coordinate their labor needs. They are using the H-2A program to develop a skilled and reliable group of employees. The employees are well-treated and respected for their expertise and efficiency. The managers have strong relationships with the supervisors and employees.

Two workforce shortages are shaping work in the vineyards. For the past 20 years or so, vineyard owners in the Finger Lakes and Western NY have been able to rely on migrant labor crews and crew leaders for ready access to a steady supply of workers to prune and tie grapevines.  In the early 90s, workers would often just show up at growers’ doorsteps and ask if there was any work available.  This later gave way to established crew leaders who would recruit others and charge growers a management fee for doing so. 

The benefits for growers were numerous:  Migrant crews often were paid by piecework – which allowed growers to budget a fixed sum for each block.  Crew leaders could provide 20-30 workers to get the job done quickly (ie. instead of having a small number of family or local workers out for much of the winter). Growers perceived that the piecework rates provided workers with compensation well above the minimum wage rates.  

And the diversity of grape varieties grown in NY provided a steady stream of work starting after harvest, and continuing through most of the growing season.  Pruning of large Concord blocks started in November, followed by hybrids, and finally moved to cold-sensitive vinifera grapes after mid-February.  Following the pruning season, there were relatively large acreages of cane-pruned vines that needed tying – and then various canopy management tasks such as suckering, cluster-zone leaf removal, and shoot positioning that provided steady employment through late summer.

A growing shortage of workers, however, is leaving growers with increasing insecurity about getting necessary tasks done – at a cost they can afford.   Informal arrangements with crew leaders that had worked well for many years are starting to be less reliable.  Growers perceive that there is much more competition for existing crews, especially during peak periods of demand.  This results in sometimes awkward price negotiations – and crews that vanish instantly if better offers come along. 

Workers are responding to the laws of supply and demand. There are fewer people seeking work in the vineyards but the demand for labor remains high. With high labor demand workers can ask for and receive higher pay. The shortage of workers compared to previous decades is driven by multiple factors:

  • Lower birth rates in Mexico and Guatemala in recent decades means there are fewer young people from these countries looking for work in the U.S.
  • Increasing economic opportunity in Mexico creates better career opportunities back home.
  • Increased immigration enforcement in the U.S. and a perception of public hostility toward immigrant workers makes the U.S. a less welcoming work location than in previous decades.

At the same time, wineries are facing another vexing workforce shortage.  Skilled, permanent employees – those that operate and fix equipment, apply inputs, and make management decisions about what to do and when – are also hard to find.   Local youth are perceived to be less interested in farm labor – even when wages are significantly higher than other employment opportunities such as clerking at convenience stores.

There is a growing disconnect between available careers in agricultural businesses and career-minded people in the local population. The reasons for this are not clear, but several trends offer plausible theories.

  • High student loan debt is forcing college graduates from rural areas to seek high paying careers in more urban locations.
  • Younger workers tend to have high expectations for rapid advancement, but smaller businesses such as vineyards and wineries rarely have a clear, internal career path, making them less attractive to people looking to move up.

Labor inputs important.  Wine grape production is very labor intensive.  Labor inputs for an acre of vertical shoot-positioned (VSP) vinifera grapes are estimated at 93 hours per acre.  About one third is for dormant pruning, another one-third is for canopy management (shoot thinning, shoot positioning, cluster thinning, leaf removal and summer shoot-tipping), and about 20% for tying and suckering. All of these tasks involve hand labor.  Only about 20% of labor costs involve skilled labor using tractor-driven equipment.  Labor costs represent about 60% of annual variable costs for wine grape producers.  Any grower looking to the future will need to take a careful look at labor inputs.

Clearly the path the industry is on, with high labor demands and shortages of labor at both frontline and management positions, is not sustainable. It will take new approaches to build a vineyard business model that can be successful into the coming mid-century decades. Wine grape growers will adapt and succeed in a variety of ways, whether by decreasing labor needs, increasing labor availability, or just getting creative about sharing labor and attracting more people into the industry. Let’s consider some opportunities.

Mechanization. Mechanization will be a significant part of the future for most vineyards. Strategic investments in equipment can dramatically reduce the amount of hand labor required as evidenced by the Concord grape industry’s ability to reduce labor costs to 25% of annual variable production cost. Even with mechanization, skilled technician and management jobs will remain. The industry has a better opportunity to attract and retain permanent, skilled employees over the long-term than it does to secure a high amount of relatively low-skilled manual labor.

Guest Workers. The U.S. provides for a foreign guest worker program, known as H-2A, which allows agricultural employers who cannot find enough local labor to bring in temporary workers from another country. Farms of all kinds struggle to find domestic labor, as a result, the H-2A program has grown dramatically in recent years. According to information from the U.S. Department of Labor the number of agricultural guest worker positions certified in the U.S. increased from 200,049 in 2017 to 242,762 in 2018, that’s a 21% increase. New York went up in the same time period from 6,870 to 7,634, an 11% increase.

Participation in H-2A is not a simple or easy fix. The program requires a great deal of management and administration that must be carried out well ahead of receiving employees and during the employment period. The program has considerable costs that employers much pay, including: administration fees, covering workers transportation in and out of the U.S., providing housing and transportation for guest workers during the work period, and paying the federally mandated wage rates. Nonetheless, many growers find the reliability of H-2A labor for carrying out needed production tasks well worth the added costs of participation in the program.

Cooperation. Whether using H-2A labor from other countries or domestic crews, many growers could benefit from cooperation among businesses to share labor resources. New York contains considerable diversity in grape growing production practices and variety types. This diversity means that some operations may require large amounts of labor when other operations are in a temporary lull. Already growers are beginning to cooperate with nearby operations to plan and schedule for sharing labor resources. Opportunities exist to further develop and formalize such labor sharing arrangements. These labor sharing strategies have benefits for workers also as it can provide more stable and reliable work opportunities.

Building Career Ladders and Lattices in the Grape Industry. Young people looking to build a career will consider an industry and the employment options it provides both immediately and in the future. Small businesses often struggle to offer long-term careers because the ladder can be pretty short: frontline worker – supervisor – owner. Increasingly, industries are thinking in terms of lattices, much like a bunch of ladders stacked side by side. Each of the ladders represents a different business within a related industry. An employee might start as a frontline employee in one business, get promoted to supervisor in the same business, then jump up the lattice to a manager role in a different, larger business. Or, an employee might start out in a large organization and work up to a supervisor role, then find an opportunity as a top manager in a smaller operation.

Developing Our Existing Workforce. Growers need to retain our current employees and get the very best performance from them. Developing employees through continuing education and challenging opportunities is a great way to keep them engaged and committed. Immigrant employees should be included in this development process, creating pathways for them to move into management positions. More focus should also be placed on developing the supervisory and leadership skills of managers at all levels in the grape industry, this will help us to create businesses with work cultures to which employees can truly commit.

The Cornell Agricultural Workforce Program.  The Cornell Agricultural Workforce Program can help.  It’s mission is to help farms and agribusinesses build committed and effective teams to carry out the important work of producing food. The program is based on the belief that agricultural work can and should be engaging and rewarding for everyone involved.  Managers can build committed teams by applying the best human resource management practices for the agricultural setting.  Program goals include:

  • Providing leadership and management development education focused on farm supervisors, middle managers, and owners.
  • Clarifying workforce regulations that apply to farms and increasing levels of compliance.
  • Building consistent channels of communication and learning opportunities about agricultural workforce issues.
  • Conducting research into workforce problems and challenges that confront agriculture.

The Ag Workforce Journal, produced by the program, is available via e-mail subscription.

Conclusion.  Workforce issues pose a major challenge for the continued growth and development of the grape industry. Businesses that thrive into the future will focus on meeting the needs of individuals and helping them to build fulfilling careers, in turn, they will enjoy the creativity and commitment of these employees.

Richard Stup is Agricultural Workforce Specialist for Cornell Cooperative Extension, based in Ithaca, NY. Tim Martinson is a senior extension associate in the Section of Horticulture, based at the NYS Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, NY.