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Without More Foreign Workers, Oregon Vintner Asks, ‘What Will We Do?’

In the 1970s, when Patricia Dudley and her husband left academic jobs to grow pinot noir grapes, they ran the small vineyard with family co-owners. “We wanted to be more connected to the natural world and the earth,” says Dudley, president of Bethel Heights Vineyard, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. “In the beginning we did everything ourselves. We wanted to get our hands in the dirt.”

Six years later, however, when the family added a winery, they realized they needed help. A local church introduced them to interested Cambodian refugees with agriculture experience, and, when those employees later moved on, workers from Mexico with vineyard experience came aboard. “We have a high-value crop, and we need skilled people who know how to work specialty farms and love what they do,” Dudley says.

We don’t have a new pool of workers available with these valuable, specialized skills.

Now, however, the 12 workers on her crew are starting to age out. “Many of these men are turning 60,” Dudley says. “We don’t have a new pool of workers available with these valuable, specialized skills.”

Dudley is hardly alone in her concern. More than half of all hired farmworkers in the United States are immigrants. In Oregon, 72.6 percent of miscellaneous agriculture workers are foreign-born. Yet in recent years the number of new immigrants arriving in the United States to work in agriculture has fallen by 75 percent, while those who are already here, like Dudley’s crew members, are fast getting too old for farm labor. In 2012, nearly twice as many foreign-born farm workers in the United States were 45 or older as were a decade earlier. For farmers, these are deeply worrying statistics. “What will we do in the future?” Dudley asks.

Not only is picking grapes back-breaking work — a job that growers say few U.S.-born workers apply to do — but growing grapes is also a specialized skill. Canopy management, a critical factor in grape production, must be done by hand, and it requires knowledge of optimal pruning, shoot thinning, shoot positioning, and leaf removal techniques. “Of course, Americans are able to do this kind of work, but many didn’t grow up in a farming tradition,” says Dudley. “There are almost no training programs in high school or college for practical vineyard work the way there are for other skilled trades.” In Napa Valley, for example, where the average starting wage for field hands is $14.10 per hour, 60 percent of vineyards experienced labor shortages last year and 70 percent skipped activities due to those shortages, according to an industry survey.

When vineyards can’t operate at full capacity, the broader economy suffers, as well. In Oregon, the production and sale of wine is a $1.7 billion industry, responsible for more than 17,000 jobs and $527 million in annual wages, according to the Oregon Wine Board. Factor in related jobs — vintner suppliers, truck drivers, wine sellers, tour operators — and the total economic impact of the wine industry in the state is over $3.35 billion. In 2013, wine-related tourism alone contributed $207.5 million in revenues to the Oregon economy. That’s all money — most of it going to American workers — that’s threatened when growers like Dudley can’t find the workers they need.

One answer, says Dudley, would be for the United States to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, who have already proven critical to the U.S. economy. Surveys by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have found that undocumented immigrants account for half of all hired crop farm workers and 36.1 percent of all agricultural workers, of all types, making them essential to the success and continued viability of America’s farms. “The people who have been here a long time and proven themselves to be valuable members of the community should have a path to legal status,” she says.

For Dudley, immigration reform to expand the legal workforce can’t come fast enough: Her family has 100 acres of grapevines and needs workers to replace her retiring foreign-born workers, many of whom have been with the family business for more than a decade. “We value our vineyard employees very highly,” she says. “People with their skill, experience and discipline are harder and harder to find.”

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