As temperatures plunged from 94 degrees into the 60s on a recent August evening, Lodi grower Brad Goehring dispatched his crew of Mexican workers into a field to pick Pinot gris. The grapes were finally sweet enough, and the 2017 wine harvest had begun.
Instead of plucking the grapes by hand, workers climbed into the cabs of giant yellow harvesters imported from France. They rumbled through 36 acres, row by row. Rods attached to the giant machines shook juicy clumps of pearl-sized indigo grapes off the vines and onto a conveyer belt. As the trucks filled with grapes, workers drove them straight to the winemaker.
Goehring, vice chairman of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, said he has turned to mechanization because of an acute shortage of farmworkers from Mexico. Other growers echoed his complaint, which has become a major theme this year for California’s behemoth agricultural industry as it pushes for immigration reform. Industry representatives say fears of immigration enforcement under the Trump administration are now exacerbating the situation, making workers afraid to take jobs in California fields.
“What’s at stake is California’s ability to feed the world,” Goehring said.
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Despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to step up deportations of undocumented immigrants, there’s little evidence of fieldworkers being rounded up in California this year. News reports have cited a handful of cases elsewhere in the country, including some apple pickers in Upstate New York and two farmworkers in Vermont who were participating in a protest. Only one of the men working in Goehring’s field said he knew of anyone who had taken their family back to Mexico because of deportation fears. Their employer said he wasn’t aware of any cases, either.
“We haven’t heard of a single ICE raid in California fields,” said Goehring.
ICE spokesman James Schwab said there have been no raids in California targeting agricultural businesses or areas because ICE does not conduct location-based raids. Schwab said that the agency singles out individual “targets” and may arrest others while apprehending the person of interest.
In Woodland, where an estimated 6,000 people are undocumented, the deportation fears that arose when Trump was first elected have faded, said some community leaders.
“We have not had any families who say they are fearful to take their children to school or go to work,” said Sylvina Frausto, a community leader who works at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, which hosts up to 500 parishioners per service. “We held a forum with the police chief and immigration attorneys the month after Trump was elected, and only 60 people came.”
Maria Zavala, 43, who lives at the Davis Migrant Labor Camp, said that back in February she knew workers in Woodland who didn’t want to leave their homes.
“People didn’t go to work to prune crops or orchards,” she said.
But now, she said, there are so many farmworkers in and around Yolo County that she and her friends have had to drive to Napa to find work.
While stories of a mass exodus since the election may be overblown, there is little doubt that the influx of undocumented migrants that California has for decades depended on to harvest its crops has slowed drastically.
The number of Mexicans living in the U.S. illegally has declined by more than 1 million since 2007, with a 150,000 drop in California, according to the Pew Research Institute. In fiscal 2016, 192,969 Mexicans were apprehended at the border, down from a peak of 1.6 million in 2000.
An estimated 70 percent of California’s roughly 600,000 farmworkers are undocumented, according to United Farm Workers Vice President Armando Elenes.
Part of the drop in new arrivals is attributable to tougher border enforcement in recent years, but other factors are in play as well.
“Mexico’s lower birth rate and growing manufacturing sector, along with tighter U.S. enforcement, have led to acute labor shortages in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico,” said Jason Resnick, vice president of the Western Growers Association.
The slowdown of illegal workers coming from Mexico has transformed California agriculture, resulting in higher wages and mechanization, said UC Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin.
“In 2000, about 1 in 3 California farmworkers was what the government called a newcomer – young, single males about 25 who went wherever they were needed,” Martin said. “Over the last 20 years, the arrival of new illegal workers was sort of the grease that kept the farm labor market running smoothly.”
But while about 55 percent of the nation’s farmworkers are still undocumented, Martin said the average age is almost 40 and these workers have established homes and don’t migrate any more. He said less than 5 percent of California farmworkers have two farm jobs at least 75 miles apart.
The result is that places with high living costs such as Napa and Sonoma must pay workers $20 an hour to commute 90 miles each way, and some workers just sleep in their cars, Martin said.
As workers are aging and becoming less flexible, farmers face the choice of paying higher wages and improving benefits, or mechanizing, Martin said.
Goehring, 52, said his labor costs have jumped 40 percent in the past three years, in part because of the state’s recent decision to boost the minimum wage. He said he plans to pull out some of his 107-year-old Zinfandel vines, even though they produce much nicer wine than many other grapes, because they are more labor intensive and can’t be picked by machine.
“The cost of harvesting the grapes is running about 50 percent of what the crop is worth,” he said.
Goehring is a Republican who ran for Congress in 2010. He voted for Trump and said he supports the idea of a wall on the border with Mexico, but only if it’s built as part of comprehensive immigration reform, including a guest-worker program. He and fellow grape grower Tom Slater of Clarksburg have been to Washington, D.C., several times in the last year to lobby Congress.
Without being able to legally tap into undocumented workers, “mechanization is our only hope,” Slater said.
From 7 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. on that August night, Goehring’s five-man crew did the work of 100 in half the usual time. Team leader Julio “German” Orozco is a native of Michoacan and has been a California farmworker for 25 years. He has planted 30,000 acres of vineyards. He said they harvested 150 tons without any mechanical problems.
He reflected on an evening that ended early, as a brilliant orange sun rose over the vineyards behind him. “It was a good night,” said Orozco.
Orozco, 52, remembers picking tons of grapes by hand. “Now it’s a little harder, you put more hours in at one time, but you make more money,” he said.
Aside from the big yellow harvesters, Goehring has replaced the crews he used to hire to pull leaves away from his grapes by hand. He now uses a leaf pulling machine that does the work of 25 to 30 people.
“We’re looking for all possible ways to limit labor,” he said.