Trump and cannabis give California winemakers a hangover

Sunday April 23 2017

Los Angeles, United States | AFP |.California's wine producers are getting nervous about US President Donald Trump's immigration crackdown, fearful of its impact on a sector already suffering labor shortages and facing competition from the cannabis industry.

Though the outlook for US wine in 2017 looks rosy, with yet another banner year on the horizon, California producers say they expect some hand-wringing come harvest season in September, when more workers are needed in the fields.

"The labor pool in recent years is definitely smaller than it has been... and there are fewer people available," said Michael Silacci, winemaker at Opus One, in the Napa Valley, where there are more than 400 wineries.

"There is concern about immigration policies changing and the situation in agricultural areas is becoming more shaky," he added. "People are wondering what is going to happen and keeping a watchful eye on what is taking place with other agricultural crops."

There are some 4,200 wineries across California -- the largest wine-producing state in America -- with about 600,000 acres (243,000 hectares) used to grow wine grapes, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Winemakers say the challenge increasingly is finding skilled labor from a shrinking work force overwhelmingly made up of Mexicans, and Trump's rhetoric targeting that community is certainly not helping matters.

Moreover, they add, native-born Americans are not exactly lining up to prune the vines or pick the grapes, given the backbreaking nature of the job.

Another concern looming large over the industry is the burgeoning multi-billion-dollar cannabis sector,which is set to grow exponentially following the legalization of recreational marijuana in California -- one of the biggest markets in the country.

- 'New apex farmer' -

Cannabis producers have become "the new apex farmer," the ones with the most cash who can draw laborers with higher wages, said John Truchard, CEO of John Anthony Vineyards and FARM Napa Valley, a farm management company.

"Napa Valley cabernet is the apex farmer today and cannabis certainly beats Napa Valley farming because their revenues are double," he added, referring to the main grape variety grown in Napa.

The short supply of laborers -- tightened by a rebounding economy in Mexico and fewer people crossing the border -- has led to something of a bidding war among farmers as they try to retain their workers or keep those that fill seasonal jobs coming back.

Wages have steadily gone up in recent years. But, while some growers like those in Napa can afford it given demand for their grapes has risen accordingly, producers in other regions have struggled to keep up.


"During harvest season you have core crews but you also bring in extra crews and they just go to the highest bidder," Truchard said. "In the last couple of years, there has been more no-shows for crews than ever in the history of Napa Valley because people are just getting the calls and saying 'We're gonna go to another vineyard because they're paying an extra fifty bucks a ton'."

Wages in Napa for farm workers range between 15 and 25 dollars an hour whereas in central California they average between 10 and 12 dollars.

- Turning to automation -

Truchard said in addition to pay raises, employers are coming up with innovative ways to hold on to their workers, including offering child care services, educational opportunities and other incentives.

Inevitably, though, winemakers say the labor shortages and rising costs will force the industry -- which contributes nearly $60 billion annually to California's economy -- to turn more and more to automation.

"Vineyards that in the past relied on hand harvesting are definitely exploring implementing machine harvesting," said Jim Stollberg, partner in two farming companies in the Santa Maria wine region of the Golden State.

In the short term, though, some might turn to their office workers and ask them to roll up their sleeves.

"In an extreme situation, we've been talking about having a crew that comes from the winery office," said Silacci. "We want to ask who would be willing to pick if we ever needed a crew and train them.

"It's like the reserves I guess."