Labor-saving technology and immigration reform were among the topics of discussion Friday at the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual meeting.
Mechanization is reaping rewards at Coyote Canyon Vineyard in Prosser, said Mike Andrews, the vineyard's manager. A crew of five can collect about 200 tons of grapes a day using newer mechanical harvesters. By hand, it would take a crew of 200 to harvest that same amount.
Using another example, it is about two-thirds less costly to use a mechanical leaf stripper than to strip leaves by hand, Andrews said. One person with the machine can do about 20 acres a day.
Stripping the leaves helps improve fruit quality by decreasing the chance of disease and lessening the green flavor, Andrews said. It also makes other jobs easier.
Andrews, speaking to more than 60 people at Kennewick's Three Rivers Convention Center, said mechanization never will totally replace the need for a reliable work force for agriculture.
Russ Smithyman, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates' director of viticulture, said using aerial maps to plan out differentiated harvesting helps with quality, but not necessarily labor. It gives the winemaker more blending options.
Ste. Michelle has a simple, inexpensive light bar that helps the harvester communicate with two gondola drivers, Smithyman said. Three lights tell the drivers when it is their turn to collect the fruit and when it is time to switch.
A lack of immigration reform would mean continued deterioration of the work force and make increased mechanization even more necessary, said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Yakima-based Washington Growers League.
Gempler, who recently returned from Washington, D.C., said comprehensive immigration reform appears likely this year.
After the 2012 election, Republicans recognized the need to address the concerns of Latino voters who have turned away from the GOP because of the party's stand on immigration, Gempler said.
It's vital to legalize the agriculture industry's thousands of key employees who are undocumented, from managers to longtime supervisors to equipment operators, Gempler said.
"We want those folks to be able to have legal status of some sort so that they can stay here and work," Gempler said.
Temporary visas for agricultural workers need to be more flexible than the current program, known as H-2A, which is unwieldy and doesn't work for small and medium-size farmers, Gempler said.
Immigration reform is likely to include mandatory use of E-Verify, an electronic system run by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration, Gempler said. It checks I-9 forms, on which workers provide provide personal information such as Social Security numbers to document their right to work in the U.S.
U.S. workers just aren't interested in many jobs in agriculture, particularly seasonal jobs, Gempler said.
Complicating the labor shortage is the migration rate from Mexico, which has slowed to a net zero. That has had an impact on the Columbia Basin, said Karen Lewis, with Washington State University's Center for Precision & Automated Agricultural Systems in Prosser.
Fewer Mexicans are coming into the United States, Lewis said. More are leaving willingly and more are being deported.