In the Vineyards: Understanding Our Workforce and Business

 In July, we conducted the largest survey ever completed of vineyard workers, not only in Sonoma County, but also statewide.

The trucks and tractors are back on the road and the aroma in the air is, thankfully, filled with the smell of grapes fermenting—a welcome change from a year ago. Harvest season is typically the most exciting period of the year and a time when we celebrate another vintage and successful growing season. However, the past few years have been challenging for not only our farmers, but our entire community. Even those who claim to be natural optimists, have been tested. Given the season and how important agriculture is to Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation (SCGGF) wants to share what’s happening with our local vineyard workforce.

Every two to three years, we survey members of our wine community to better understand our workforce and business. The goal is to identify problems, find solutions and foster a positive work environment with employees. In July, we conducted the largest survey ever completed of vineyard workers, not only in Sonoma County, but also statewide. We surveyed 965 vineyard workers in Spanish, which is more than 15% of the local vineyard workers. Our local vineyard workforce represents about 5.6% of the Latino population in Sonoma County. Here’s a quick overview of what the survey revealed.

Local vineyard workers

Currently, more than 80% of our vineyard workforce includes full-time employees (not day laborers or seasonal workers). Over the past five years, local winegrape growers have created more full-time work opportunities for vineyard workers, due to increased competition from other jobs such as construction, cannabis and hospitality. In addition, grape growers have shifted to more mechanization and use of the H2A guest worker VISA program. All of this has provided more stability in the workforce which has benefitted local vineyard workers living in Sonoma County.

On average, our local vineyard workers have worked for the same farming family or manager in Sonoma County for more than 10 years. More than 20% of the respondents have been with their employer for 20 or more years. Our local grape growers are leaders in providing workforce housing. More than 40% of local vineyard workers responded that housing is available to them free of charge or at a reduced cost by their employers, or they receive housing support. This is up from 30% receiving housing support in 2017. The average hourly rate of pay for Sonoma County vineyard workers is $19.87 per hour, which has increased $3.13 per hour since 2017. Wages for Sonoma County vineyard workers can be as high as $30 to $40 per hour during harvest.

One of the most exciting survey takeaways—and not surprising for local farmers—is that vineyard workers genuinely like working in agriculture. In fact, more than 90% of the respondents would recommend working in agriculture to family or friends. Why do they like working in agriculture? The top three reasons were: they enjoy farming (75%); they like working outside (40%); or they grew up on a farm (more than 28%).

When asked which resource they seek when they need help, more than 80% of the responses were split between “family” and their “employer.” This further validates the successful model that SCGGF established in 2016 when it relaunched its mission, committing to serving as a resource for vineyard workers and their families. The foundation relies on the trusted relationship between employers and their workforce to provide needed resources.

Closing language barriers

As part of the important conversation around supporting Indigenous language speakers in Sonoma County, we also sought more information about the languages spoken by vineyard workers including asking them whether they spoke any of the 23 Indigenous languages as well as Spanish and English. In terms of languages, we learned that out of 965 vineyard employees, only five individuals have either Mixteco or Chatino as a primary language. However, they work with other employees at the organization who are fluent in those languages, as well as Spanish, and provide any translation services as needed. This has been a best practice by our grape growers for years.

We also asked which support organizations vineyard workers were aware of or received support from. In terms of organizations that vineyard workers go to for support, we were pleased to learn that more than 45% have been supported by the foundation, which has provided more than $1.5 million in support directly to farmworkers since 2017 to help them during wildfires and COVID pandemic. SCGGF was identified by the 965 respondents as the No. 1 organization they reached out to for support.

We know local grape growers follow strict guidelines from CAL/OSHA in terms of access to clean bathrooms, water, heat protection, breaks and other protocols that keep our local workers safe and healthy and they were all being followed, according to the survey.

The 2021 vintage

As another harvest season is upon us, our local grape growers and vineyard workforce are busy working together to bring in the 2021 vintage. We look forward to continuing to be a part of our local community and supporting agriculture’s future in Sonoma County.

Karissa Kruse is president of Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation. For more information, visit sonomawinegrape.com or scggf.org.

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