Labor could be tight — and expensive — this season for California grape growers, and with other costs rising as well, growers can only hope for a solution that so far remains elusive.
“(Labor) is going to be a battle, for sure,” said Jeff Olsen, president of the Chuck Olsen Co., Visalia, Calif.
The company expects four crews that have worked with the company for about 15 years to return this season, but Olsen said there will be times when two or three additional crews will be needed.
“Hopefully, we can get that done,” he said.
On a positive note, grape picking is piecework, which allows workers to make better wages than they might with certain other commodities, he said.
Growers harvesting tree fruit, summer citrus and blueberries in the San Joaquin Valley in June had an adequate supply of workers, said Tom Wolfe, sales manager for Valhalla Sales & Marketing Inc., Visalia, Calif.
But that’s likely to change after the Fourth of July, when table grapes get started and melons are added to the mix.
“I expect labor to get pretty thin,” he said. “You’ll have to get very competitive with your pricing for labor.”
California growers are producing large crops and trying to pick them as efficiently as possible because of “stringent labor laws and production costs,” said Jon Zaninovich, president of Jasmine Vineyards Inc., Delano, Calif.
“The worldwide marketplace is not on the same level as we are,” he said. “We’re competing against countries that are not the same as far as costs in production.”
The Delano area, where many of the state’s table grapes are grown, is somewhat fortunate because the region has a year-round labor force, he said.
But labor is more migratory in many other areas, where it’s “a very serious situation,” he said.
The drought has been top of mind for the past few years, but with record rainfall this year, labor has taken the top spot, said Louie Galvan, managing partner at Fruit Royale Inc., Delano.
“Our actual acreage increases yearly, but the amount of people we have to work those acres drops yearly,” he said.
Maintaining a vineyard requires much more than just picking grapes, Galvan said.
“We’re working on them year-round,” he said.
There’s thinning before they’re picked, pruning after they’re picked, clipping bunches and thinning bunches.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” he said. “That labor force has to be available year-round.”
Labor availability is not the only concern, Galvan said.
“Savings have to be realized across the board with labor, material, cooling and solar panel projects,” he said.
“We have to do what we can here to minimize costs,” Galvan said. “It’s the only way for us to survive.”
Some efforts have been made to help improve the labor scene, but nothing much has materialized so far.
“We don’t seem to be able to get a working immigration system to satisfy the politicians and the public,” Zaninovich said.
Wolfe said it would help if more personnel were assigned to processing visas for foreign workers.
“Currently there’s a bottleneck that is pretty tight,” he said.
In May, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., proposed a “Blue Card” program that would shield agriculture workers from deportation.
“There’s going to have to be some sort of program,” Olsen said. “There’s just no way around it."