Central Coast vintners may choose machines over ‘guest workers’

Along the Central Coast, federal policy regarding immigration and labor is currently the number one concern among wine growers. Many of the farmworkers are in the U.S. without legal authorization, and are worried about deportation. If it becomes harder for vintners to find seasonal workers, they may begin using machines to do the work. Some are already trying it.

Food and wine writer Matt Kettmann sat in on a recent vintners conference in Paso Robles. He told KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian about their biggest concerns.

“Everyone is freaked out. They’re not sure what the Trump administration is going to do,” said Kettmann. “There’s fear that the federal government may make farmers e-register their employees, which is difficult because many domestic workers who have been here for decades aren’t completely legal.”

Grape harvesting machines may become the norm at Central Coast vineyards. (Mark Goebel/CC)

Because of this, farmers nationwide are scrambling to find people who are allowed to enter the U.S. specifically as seasonal workers on farms. These “guest workers” get an H-2A visa, which lets them stay in the country temporarily.

That’s costly for farmers, though. Not only do H-2A workers need to get paid more than minimum wage, but the farmers are often responsible for housing and transporting them.

“Plus, the domestic workers who have been here forever won’t be able to work,” said Kettmann. “They’ll be out-competed by these H2A employees.”

It’s pushing winemakers deeper into mechanization, he adds.

“If they can’t get people to pick the grapes, you’re going to see a lot more tractors hitting the fields,” he said.