MW Topic of the Week - LABOR

Hi guys,

This time, let's focus on one specific question.

From the 2017 exam:

Labour supply for vineyard work is decreasing in many parts of the world. If this trend continues, how will this affect viticulture, and how can vineyard managers around the world best prepare for, and handle, a shortage of workers? 

Excited to hear everyone's thoughts!


Kelli, , Sarah Bray

  • Ain’t this all about technology and automation? Drones, more advanced mechanical harvesters, lazer pruners that can mounted on a donkey or tractor, self watering vines with advanced sensors attached to the roots, etc...

  • In the absolute worst case scenario, with a shortage of discerning human labor, automation may run rampant, causing vineyard managers to train vines first and foremost with ease of maintenance and harvest in mind, and not necessarily what would be best for the climate or grape variety that would lead to top quality. 

     As pointed out already, there are so many tools available at our disposal now.

    This is, of course, more of a problem for very large operations with vast hectares of vineyards. Small enough producers from prestige growing areas and regions which already command a blue chip price point may continue to roll the higher (and continually rising cost) of vineyard labor into the end price of their bottles. Particularly if they are already in high demand. This increase in price to maintain quality may be unfortunate, but also may be necessary. 

  • Well the key is to look at the broad scope. What about established vineyards that are planted without mechanization in mind? Etna certainly can’t not be hand harvested. So the answer has to address both established and new plantings, managing labor forces, considering increases in pay (which will in turn affect price of the wine). Understanding required investments in machinery, training into spur from cane pruned vines, making sure vineyard row widths can cope with machinery... all of this needs to be addressed.

  • Great point , it definitely would depend on what the topography of a vineyard area is like. Not to mention that vineyards where it is not possible to accomplish machine harvesting are usually quite a bit more dangerous to work, and there may not be people willing to do this kind of work.

    Interested in others' thoughts on the different reasons for the labor shortage in different areas. Besides monetary...... 

  • Hi Kelli, this is a great question. We have certainly heard tales of labor shortages in California and Oregon. A winemaker in Lebanon told me it is becoming an issue for them because many of the Syrian refugees who were willing to work in the vineyards have now returned home. 

    I spent the spring and summer working in a couple of estate old vine vineyards this year and realized there is a lot more time involved outside of pruning, shoot positioning, and picking. 

    Here is my quick and dirty 10 minute brainstorm outline/mindmap (I am not including examples because of the public nature of this forum)

    How will the trend affect viticulture?

    -Lower quality (can't do what they want when they want to)

    -Increase precision (usage of sensors, satellite imagery now highly desirable)

    -Improve quality of life and sustainability to ensure future quality (invest in workers by paying living wage, offering benefits, training)

    -Less organics (systemic fungicides, fertilizers less labor intensive than spray and leaf removal)

    -Lose old vines (replant for ease of work and financial viability to increase tons/acre by increasing vineyard density)

    How can vineyard managers prepare and handle a labor shortage?

    -Train and invest in a team of full-time workers or outsource some duties to a vineyard management company that does (small and large operations)

    -Sucker, shoot thin, drop extra clusters early (for ease and speed)

    -Re-evaluate vineyard protocols such as hedging (unnecessary?)

    -Plant cover crop to reduce need for fertilizer, reduce need for weeding, improve soil and vine health to require fewer soil treatments (also encourage natural pest deterrents) Make nature work for you.

    -Plant clover under vines to reduce need for hand weeding or chemical applications under rows

    -Configure any new vineyards for ease of automation and machine access 

    Time's up. What did I miss???

  • I just came back to this and re-read it and realize I should have included precision viticulture techniques (sensors, etc) in the second set, as well, to balance vigor throughout the vineyard, thereby reducing labor hours. I suppose I will be waking with new thoughts all night. 

  • Ah, I should also include that it would be extremely beneficial to establish a network of managers of similarly sized vineyards so they may each lend a hand, if needed, and share knowledge and experiences.

  • The Douro had to be hand harvested once, too, then they widened the terraces and planted straight up the hill in places they could. I’m not saying places like Etna will evolve, or are even capable of evolving into another system, but growers of scale will be forced to look at alternatives going forward....or governments can change their views on making this kind of work accessible. It’s not like there are less people on the planet or anything. 

  • Economies of scale there, but well noted . And I think your point about governments is as well – I was just up at Tantalus Vineyards in the Okanagan, and they have two of their lead team members on the viti side that are part of a seasonal crew that comes up from Mexico every year, who they've trained and are some of their most skilled workers – they've been trying to sponsor them (families as well) but haven't been able to get that processed for several years now. 

  • While the H2A program certainly has challenges and is expensive, several Virginia wineries including Barboursville, Trump and Early Mountain use the program for the bulk of their vineyard labor as it allows us to manage quality much more precisely in a variable climate.  I'm happy to share offline specific costs associated with the program specific to our experience (at Early Mountain) - 

  • I think it's important here to avoid discussing mechanization as if it's a single technique, to leave room for a more meaningful discussion about its role in viticulture in an environment with declining labor availability. Not all mechanization is bad or results in lower quality. A shortage in labor forces companies to prioritize which vineyard operations are essential to do by hand and which are better done by machine. For example, pruning will be very difficult to mechanize well, whereas leafing/canopy thinning/suckering by machine is more successful. Mechanical harvesters have improved a lot and are successful in some circumstances. Most vineyards already use mechanization for hedging, topping, management of the vineyard floor, and spraying. Labor shortages are forcing equipment manufacturers to up their game, and a result, there will be better equipment. I'd guess that in the future equipment will be better adapted to a variety of vineyard setups.

    I like that Kim mentioned re-evaluating certain vineyard practices. Some are more vital for quality than others, and with limited labor, people are forced to be more strategic and identify which practices are actually improving quality or vineyard health, and which are not. In the best circumstances, this forces people to be better farmers.

    I think it's also worth pointing out that in many cases labor shortages don't imply that particular vineyard operations won't happen, but rather, they may not happen quickly, and timing can be important. Harvest is a clear example of this, but other operations like leafing, spraying, green drop, mowing are also time sensitive. In some cases, the ability to act quickly through mechanization could actually be an improvement (a good example of this is spraying).

    For background, the busy season in the vineyard is often from budbreak through veraison. Pruning and harvest still require a lot of labor, but they are simpler since everyone is focused on a single task. I worked for Silverado Farming Company in Napa and our staff doubled from March through July.