The U.S. is the largest wine market in the world, and California produces 65 percent of all the wine consumed domestically. Our industry generates $57.6 billion in annual state level economic activity, which in turn employs 325,000 Californians. It is vital that California wine remain competitive in a global market.
Growing winegrapes is a labor-intensive enterprise. During the growing season, a tremendous amount of hand labor is required to prune the vines, thin the crop and shape the vine canopy to produce quality grapes. Generally, labor accounts for about 57 percent of operating costs for Sacramento-area winegrape growers, but such costs are rapidly escalating.
The competition for workers is fierce and winegrape growers have steadily increased wages for workers. An LA Times analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that California field laborer wages had increased 13 percent from 2010-2015 — twice as fast as average pay in the state. However, wage increases haven’t induced more people to work in vineyards. Instead, as growers compete with one another, higher wages tend to shift a limited supply of workers from one region or crop sector to another. As a result, growers are struggling against higher labor costs and a dwindling labor supply.
California’s farms and ranches, which are responsible for producing over 400 commodities valued at $45.3 billion, are reliant on immigrant labor, particularly Mexican immigrants. The absence of an effective guestworker program, coupled with more aggressive enforcement on a tighter border and economic growth in Mexico, have produced a desperate shortage of workers for California’s farms, vineyards and ranches.
Over 31 years ago, sweeping immigration policy was enacted into federal law. Known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act, the law was intended as a grand compromise that would stop illegal immigration, provide important reforms and give illegal immigrants already in the U.S. the opportunity for permanent residency. Congressmen like then-California Senator (and former governor) Pete Wilson and former California representatives Dan Lungren, Howard Berman and Leon Panetta all played key roles in pushing the bill forward with bipartisan support. Another Californian, then-President Ronald Reagan signed the bill into law.
The IRCA was intended to provide an enduring framework for sensible and effective immigration policies and programs. Unfortunately, the law has been anything but sensible and effective. In the years following IRCA’s passage, the U.S. economy boomed. With a porous border between the U.S. and Mexico, no effective guestworker program and lax federal enforcement against employers hiring workers bearing fraudulent documents, IRCA proved incapable of stopping illegal immigration. Today, we are left with immigration laws that deliver uncertainty and disorder.
Last September, President Trump declared an imminent end to President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy and a gridlocked Congress remains incapable of producing comprehensive immigration reform. The political stalemate on immigration poses a grave threat to California agriculture.
This past year, winegrape growers in the Sierra foothills struggled to attract workers and harvest their crops on time. Lacking workers, growers in the Lodi region are ripping out iconic vineyards of old vine Zinfandel and planting other grape varietals on modern trellis systems that allow machine pruning and harvesting. Increasingly, growers are replanting vineyards to nut crops, which require little labor, or cashing out to developers.
Failed immigration policies, which restrict the hiring of guest workers, combined with the high cost of doing business in California mean growers are under extraordinary pressure to mechanize labor-intensive tasks. Fortunately, an emerging body of research indicates mechanized vineyards can produce better quality grapes and higher yields, which can result in greater profitability for the grower. However, maximizing mechanization opportunities in winegrape vineyards typically entails planting a vineyard with mechanization in mind.
The mechanized vineyard requires special trellis systems and vine rows able to accommodate machinery to prune and sucker the vines, thin the leaf canopy and mechanically harvest the grapes. However, winegrape vineyards typically have a 25–30-year productive lifespan before they must be pulled out and replanted. This means mechanization isn’t a viable near-term solution for the great majority of California’s 615,000 winegrape acres currently in production — which brings us back to the need for an effective guestworker program.
California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican representatives David Valadao and Jeff Denham have long-advocated for sensible immigration reform that would secure our nation from inflows of undocumented immigrants while also providing the guestworkers needed for our agricultural economy. It’s possible to secure our borders and provide the skilled immigrant workers needed for a growing and diverse economy, but fixing our immigration system will require compromise and bipartisanship.
In 2013 the U.S. Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill, SB 744, by a vote of 68 to 32. The bill would have bolstered border enforcement and dramatically reduced rates of illegal immigration, while also providing for improved guestworker programs and opportunities for undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. to obtain legal status after undergoing background checks, payment of fines and fees, and meeting other requirements. The Congressional Budget Office calculated the resultant economic benefits of SB 744 would have reduced the federal budget deficit by more than $840 billion over a 20-year period. However, the House of Representatives refused to consider the bill and nothing changed.
The current political climate in Washington D.C., favors inaction over compromise and anti-immigrant rhetoric over immigration policies that would fuel economic growth. Continued inaction threatens to unleash dramatic change — not for the better — for California agriculture and our wine industry. We need compromise. We need common sense. We need to resolve our immigration mess.