A couple of weeks ago, I attended Grape Day at Newsom Vineyards, up west of Lubbock in the Texas Panhandle – pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But it was worth the trip – several great speakers (Dr. Andy Walker from UC Davis, Dr. Richard Becker of Becker Vineyards, and many others), interesting people, tasty food and good wine. Out of a discussion with Cliff Bingham of Bingham Vineyards & Farms, arose one of the challenges rural or isolated wineries face: vineyard workers.
Bingham Vineyards has 250 acres planted of a wide variety of grapes. They are possibly the largest and one of the most in demand grape growers in Texas, and have real sustainable vineyards. Farming and grape growing is all they do and all the grapes they grow are under long term contract to Texas wineries. At this level of growing, mechanization is critical, but don’t fool yourself – there’s still lots of manual labor to be done. You need people to drive the tractors, do the pruning, tie the shoots, train young vines, etc. First and second year vines require 2-3 times more manual labor than established vines.
This brings up the question: You’re in the middle of nowhere, where do you get the people you need to work your vineyard? Sometimes the best place to grow grapes is far away from the people seeking work. Many of these are semi-skilled or skilled trades, i.e. they need to know what they are doing. You need a vineyard manager and a few hands to work full time, at least for several months out of the year. Spouses and relatives might be good part-time choices. Being around the vineyards, they have some context and can easily talk and ask relevant questions. This kind of seasonal family-farming is quite common. In Europe, many of the French vineyards are worked by Hungarians and Romanians during the summer months in just this fashion.
One gentleman I spoke with has a business in California, where he brings the workers together with the vineyards needing help. He makes sure the workers have experience in the vineyards. Often the work needed is tying shoots or thinning leaves. When you have 50 acres of new vines, and all of the work needs to happen within two weeks, you need short term workers. So as a grower, you need have enough workers ready to go and get the job done timely. That’s California, where the multitude of vineyards and farms is a natural magnet for migrant workers.
What if your vineyard isn’t in California and possibly in the middle of nowhere (with no trained labor nearby) – how do you deal with managing your vineyards?
1. Invest in more mechanization. There are machines that can pull leaves and prune your vines. But there will always be some manual labor. These machines can get the majority done and then the workers come behind to do the more precise work.
2. Or perhaps, you have a full staff working at your winery and vineyard. Maybe you can pull the majority out to do the labor at different times during the growing season. Of course, you cannot do this if your winery is busy during that time. You need to stay focused on your winery business growing.
3. What if you are in a highly rural area and there is not a population of people there for you to rely on for labor? Now you are not only dealing with getting the workers there, they need a place to live because you’ll need them from pruning season through harvest. As many farmers and grape growers have done throughout history, you may need to build a bunkhouse or two. Consider they will need food and other necessities. Perhaps you hire a cook, have a “general store” where they can purchase things such as toiletries, basic clothes, shoes, food, etc. A large-scale example of this is the King Ranch in Texas (at one time over 1.2 million acres.) The ranch is so large, that they moved an entire village to the ranch so they could work the ranch and still shop, eat, etc.
Obviously the King Ranch is the rare case, but these are things you need to think about if you are planting a vineyard in a very isolated area. Location, size of vineyard, design of the vineyard…Do you plan on everything being done manually? Where will you get the labor? What do they need to live there for 6-8 months?
To clarify, “isolated” does not necessarily mean an extremity such as the Davis Mountains. Being isolated could be that you are just far enough away from an urban area so as not to be easily accessible for workers. Take Spicewood Vineyards for example. Their vineyard and winery, when started, was only 30 miles outside of Austin, Texas. They were too far away from migrant workers (the city of Austin isn’t a big farming community after all) and they were too big to do all the work themselves. They realized they had to build a bunkhouse and guarantee these workers 6 months of work every year to keep them coming back.
If you also have a winery and are this isolated, you may have to distribute! And if you distribute, then how many acres do you need to plant to meet the distributors demand? Your business plan may need to be 100% distribution if you are too isolated for tasting room sales to be a realistic outlet.
All of these questions can create a quandary for the trailblazer. You have a lot more to think about than will the next wineries that pop up around you. You will have to plan all of this out first and build it into your expenses. And plan you must, to be on the road to success!
If your vineyard is remote, what creative ways have you handled this problem? Share your experience for others. Thanks.
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