Last October, grape grower Dick Boushey, his wife, and his hardworking, entirely Latino crew were bringing in the harvest in Washington state’s Yakima Valley. They had been in the vineyards since dawn and were slowly, methodically working their way along the rows of vines, carrying heavy crates of grapes hand-picked at the very peak of ripeness.
On an idyllic early fall morning, with the sunshine sparkling on the snowy peaks of the local volcanoes and spilling down into the valleys quilted with vineyards and orchards, it would be easy to romanticize the whole process. But in reality, Boushey says, it is often difficult to find agricultural workers in Washington state — the nation’s No. 1 producer of apples and cherries and the No. 2 producer of grapes — a problem casting an increasingly long shadow over Washington’s burgeoning wine industry.
Washington’s wine industry is perhaps the most vibrant and innovative in the U.S., if not the world. Wine grapes were first planted about 50 years ago on the sunny hillsides of Eastern Washington’s Yakima Valley, and the intervening decades have been a time of unfettered experimentation and expansion. Growth in acreage and production is currently running at about 9 percent a year, and growers say the industry is still at least two generations away from knowing which grapes are best suited to which terroir in this wildly diverse landscape. Many growers cultivate an astonishing number of varietals, with cool-weather white grapes such as riesling sitting cheek by jowl with classic Rhone reds such as syrah.
This spirit of innovation is also aided by the industry’s geographic configuration. Most grapes are grown in the warmer, drier climate of Eastern Washington, and while some wine is estate-made and bottled there, much of the grape production heads west over the mountains to the wineries close to Seattle, where artisan winemakers can buy in grapes and experiment with winemaking on a small scale. The industry in Washington is highly fragmented, with the state now hosting more than 850 wineries, though the 14 largest wineries account for 45 percent of sales. Boushey alone works with over 40 different winemakers.
For the wine drinker, the incredible energy and diversity of these smaller independent vineyards and wineries brings only good news, with exceptional wines emerging at all price points. But these smaller operations would also be the most vulnerable to a major hike in production costs, if the labor shortage were to get significantly worse.
Wine grapes are a technically challenging crop to raise, and, as with other crops in the state, one that is threatened by the serious shortage of agricultural labor. Supply is limited by Washington’s distance from Mexico, where most of the West Coast’s agricultural labor force originates, and with so many key crops — tree fruits, hops, blueberries, and asparagus, as well as grapes — being dependent on hand-picking and hand-pruning, competition for labor is intense.
After the Trump administration was ushered in, Washington’s grape growers, who had been hoping for more clarity and flexibility in immigration policy, are instead having to face a climate of heightened uncertainty. Given the specific challenges associated with harvesting grapes, and the difficulties in replacing the existing immigrant workforce, an aggressive enforcement-only immigration policy could have profound consequences both for the growers’ crews and their industry.
Agriculture in Washington state employs close to 100,000 workers in peak season, with the grape industry alone employing around 5,000 people during the summer and early fall. Of these, an unknown number — but estimated at up to 50 percent, according to a 2014 National Agricultural Workers Survey — are undocumented. Growers say they ask for Social Security numbers and pay payroll taxes, but have no way of making further background checks.
The labor shortage, according to local winemakers, began with the Obama administration’s vigorous clampdown on illegal immigration. But now workers are living in fear of a much more aggressive and indiscriminate enforcement-only policy, which doesn’t just focus on criminals, but treats all undocumented workers as equal targets for deportation.
For the first time, Spanish-language radio stations in Yakima are informing people of their rights if apprehended. Boushey has heard of workers who are now afraid to use the freeway for fear of being pulled over and who are not signing up for healthcare. Laura Armstrong, executive director of La Casa Hogar, a nonprofit providing education and advice to immigrant workers in the valley, tells of families facing the trauma of making contingency plans for the deportation of a parent, and having to explain to young children what to do in case they come home from school to find a parent gone. Others have disappeared entirely from Armstrong’s classes and seem to be no longer participating in the community.
Fear within the immigrant community, coupled with a significant reduction in immigration, is making it increasingly difficult for farmers and grape growers to recruit the workers they need, just when the existing labor force is aging out. “I receive calls every day from growers to ask what they can do,” says Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League. H2-A visas are the only currently legal way by which growers can bring in agricultural labor from abroad, but the costs — housing and transportation must be provided — compliance requirements, and inflexibility are prohibitive to smaller wine growers, whose labor needs may vary on a weekly basis.
And these visas do nothing to help undocumented workers who may have lived in the state for many years, have houses, pay taxes, and have kids in school. “These people literally do not have a pathway to legal citizenship,” explains Armstrong. The situation will only worsen if, as expected, the new administration beefs up border controls and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) resources.
Increasing wages and benefits in order to tap into the nonimmigrant domestic labor market is not the answer. According to wine grower Patrick Rawn, of Two Mountain Winery, the market rate in the area is around 20 percent over the minimum wage (already the highest in the country), rising to $25 to $30 per hour during harvest. But still, he says, even when guaranteeing work at slower times of year and focusing heavily on worker training and retention, recruitment remains difficult. “I think the barrier is more cultural in nature,” Rawn admits. “We have never had a ‘gringo’ apply for work in our farm operation.”
Boushey is blunt. ‘’These [immigrant workers] are not replacing anybody, and they’re actually generating growth.”
In certain agricultural industries, such as wheat, labor shortages have led naturally to increased mechanization, but this is more difficult in highly “visual” operations such as grape growing. Workers need to know exactly where to prune the vines and select which grapes to pick, with every task being key to both fruit yield and quality. Nevertheless, the growers are having to invest more heavily in machinery. Most of the vineyards planted over the last 15 years or so have been cultivated with mechanization in mind, in terms of plant spacing and uniformity of trellising. But machine-picking is indiscriminate, meaning that grapes need to be sorted, may not all be equally ripe, and are easily damaged, potentially leading to accelerated fermentation — a major concern when a lot of production is shipped across the state in refrigerated trucks. A state-of-the art machine, with sorting capability on-boarded, can cost upward of $400,000, making it a big investment for the smaller vineyards and wineries.
The industry is also labor-intensive at other times of year. Machinery is being developed, some equipped with cutting-edge digital-imaging technology, to do pre-pruning, pruning, suckering, and leaf removal, but again, the cost of this technology is a stretch for the smaller vineyards, and quality is compromised at every stage.
In an ideal world, wineries would invest in mechanization to carry out the most routine and back-breaking operations, while still having a reliable pool of workers for the more nuanced and skilled tasks. Growers like Phil Cline of Naches Heights Vineyard cling to the hope that common sense will prevail in Washington, D.C. — that lawmakers will acknowledge how a consistent stream of workers is necessary for small vineyards like his. “Where there’s an obvious necessity or need, I hope that people will be able to sort things out,” he says.
Gempler concurs: “We’ve been working on this for 25 years and we know what to do. [The country is] just not there yet politically.”
Rawn calls the current situation “a functioning gray market” where the obvious demand for immigrant labor could be met by supply, if that supply weren’t being artificially limited. “We can’t maintain the status quo; we have to legalize this workforce,” Gempler says. A common-sense approach to immigration reform would mean acknowledging that immigrant farm workers won’t be replaced by domestic workers and would cover a recognized path to citizenship for those currently undocumented, green cards for those who wish to migrate seasonally between Mexico and the U.S., and more flexible temporary visas allowing workers to work for several different employers as required (a step that even the president supposedly supports).
The growers expect the current enforcement-only policies and pressure on labor supply to continue, and as a result, it is not obvious what will happen next. Increased production costs caused by higher wages and mechanization may lead to higher wine prices for the consumer or a loss of market share as imported wines become comparatively cheaper.
Washington growers have hard investment decisions ahead of them. Quality may be compromised as vineyards are left unpruned and grapes are harvested late — or not at all. Some of the smaller independent vineyards may go out of business altogether or switch to less labor-intensive crops. Vineyard consolidation as growers seek economies of scale could threaten that diversity and experimentation that has until now been the glory of the industry in Washington. As Cline puts it, “We know the big boys will be able to cope.”
Armstrong believes wine drinkers also need to be more aware. “Consumers have a role in demanding better lives and livelihoods for those people who put food and drink on their tables,” she says.
And it is the human consequences that also trouble the farmers: They’re worried about their colleagues, coworkers, employees, and friends. “[Politicians] should be able to come up with some sort of system that means people who come here to work can do so without worrying every day that they will be deported,” says Cline. Boushey concurs: “These people are skilled, they are hardworking, and they are important. They feed us.”
Paola Thomas is a British food photographer and writer who has made a home in the glorious Pacific Northwest.
Editor: Erin DeJesus