WINE TO WEED: Wine grape growers lose labor to cannabis farms

Amid a years-long labor shortage, workers in California’s wine region are headed to cannabis jobs offering better pay, working conditions

By Kaitlin Washburn
@kwashy12

CALIFORNIA – Maria Vilchis had reached her breaking point. She couldn’t manage one more season working for a vineyard.

For years, she’d survived on temporary jobs picking wine grapes and cleaning barrels in wine cellars throughout the Salinas Valley. But the hard labor was taking a toll on her body and the seasonal income wasn’t enough to support her family.

“I started as a single mom with two young boys and that made it very hard to work in the fields,” Vilchis said. “I needed money and two months in the winery wasn’t going to be enough.”

About four months ago, she looked into finding work in Monterey County’s cannabis industry. Soon enough, she had a full-time job at Flora California, a cannabis farm just outside of Salinas, an agriculturally rich coastal valley known for producing lettuce, strawberries and wine grapes.

“I wanted something year around, I didn’t want something temporary,” Vilchis said. “I needed to do something else. I moved here to Flora because I wanted to have more opportunities and to grow.”

She now makes more money and has more time to spend with her family. She is paid $15 an hour and works Monday to Friday, eight hours a day — an improvement from the 60-hour work week tending vineyards Monday to Saturday. Soon she’ll be a regular employee, which comes with $17-an-hour pay, full benefits and a 401k.

Vilchis is among a growing number of people leaving their vineyard jobs for the higher pay and better working conditions many cannabis growers offer. The result is increasing tensions between these relative newcomers and the state’s long-established wine producers — also adding pressure to an ongoing labor shortage that shows no sign of easing anytime soon.

The issue has arrived on the doorsteps of the agencies and associations in charge of regulating and supporting California agriculture, which are seeking ways to help the two industries coexist.

The Sun-Gazette spoke with farm workers, wine and cannabis growers, wine association and farm bureau directors. Few will begrudge a laborer for choosing where to work, but some think counties were too hasty to open their doors to cannabis.

In 2016, Californians voted yes on Proposition 64 — the Adult Use of Marijuana Act — which legalized the cultivation and sale of commercial cannabis. Prop. 64 empowered counties to decide whether cannabis would be legalized within their borders. Some counties welcomed the new legal version of marijuana, while others, including Tulare County, opted to indefinitely ban the crop.

A large share of California’s world-renowned wine grapes are grown in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties. They thrive in the temperate climates of these coastal areas.

And so does cannabis.

Acreage now devoted to cannabis is a small fraction of the half-million acres wine grapes occupy statewide, but in a historically tight labor market, those acres have an outsized impact.

Wine grapes make up the lion’s share of California’s grape production compared to table and raisin. The state’s grape industry values $5.5 billion, and wine grapes make up $3.6 billion.

The California Department of Agriculture says it doesn’t calculate the total acreage of cannabis since cultivation permits don’t set a limit on how much a grower can cultivate. The state left it up to counties, which have set their own limits on how many acres of the plant can be grown within their borders.

As of the start of 2020, there are over 4,700 active cultivation licenses in the state. In 2018, California’s legal cannabis market made $2.5 billion, and according to an analysis by a cannabis sales-tracking firm, the industry is on track to make $3.1 billion in 2019.

GROWING PAINS

Babcock Winery and Vineyards sits in the fertile valley that lies along the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County. The mountain range shields the area from the Pacific Ocean, and the grapes — particularly pinot noir and chardonnay — love the crisp, salty air that wafts through the vineyards. Bryan Babcock’s parents started operations in the 1970s, and he’s been running it for the past 30 years.

Finding reliable workers has never been easy, he said. But the combination of a depleting migrant workforce and the challenges of vineyard labor have made things harder than ever, especially for small businesses.

“Most of the labor from labor contractors will go to a bigger ranch for steady employment,” he said. “There are times when I’ve called a labor contractor asking for 20 people, and then only three show up because there weren’t enough people available.”

Babcock said there’s already a competitive, stand-off dynamic between wine grape growers and cannabis growers.

“It’s not that they don’t have a right, but they are sucking up the labor,” Babcock said. “We are all trying to make a living and be proud of what we do.”

Graham Farrar knows Babcock and praises his winemaking, but the owner of Glass House Farms — one of Santa Barbara County’s many cannabis farms — says other wine grape growers haven’t been so welcoming to cannabis.

Santa Barbara County is one of the most liberal issuers of commercial cannabis licenses. Currently, there are 1,164 active cultivation permits in the county, a close second to Humboldt County — one of the three counties home to the Emerald Triangle — the historic heavyweight of California marijuana.

Farrar started growing commercial cannabis at Glass House, situated on 10 acres in Carpinteria, after Santa Barbara County voters overwhelmingly supported Prop. 64. Farrar says community support has only strengthened over the past three years, and that it’s time for cannabis to be taken seriously as an agricultural commodity.

“You have to look out for stigma, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding cannabis,” Farrar said. “And we’ve been able to fight some of that and make progress.”

Farrar, who describes himself as a “lifelong cannabis enthusiast,” feels that in order to have any staying power he needs to go above and beyond the usual labor standards in agriculture. He doesn’t use any seasonal labor, his employees are full-time. They work an 8-hour day, anything else is overtime.

He provides health care and paid sick days. Glass House also puts on an employee appreciation lunch each month and hosts a company-wide party twice a year.

“A lot of times in agriculture, the employees get used like a tool. ‘Oh, we’ve got to harvest so let’s bring in 20 people, have them work 10 hours a day and don’t come back tomorrow,’” Farrar said. “They don’t care what your name is or how you get your groceries next week.”

Bryan Babcock, the owner of Babcock Winery & Vineyards, explains the unique trellising system he uses on his vineyard. The system is more mechanically friendly and requires fewer hands to maintain. Photo by Kaitlin Washburn.

Three years ago, Alberto Arroyo left a 30-year career in the cut-flower business to accept a job running Farrar’s greenhouses. He now oversees 25 employees, 500,000 square feet of cannabis plants and doesn’t miss his old job.

“It was a win-win move,” Arroyo said. “We are able to pay our employees better wages and offer a good variety of benefits packages. One of the many benefits is we make more money working less hours, it’s a crop that gives us flexibility.”

The transition from working with flowers to cannabis wasn’t all that shocking for Arroyo. While cannabis has its own unique traits, at the end of the day, Arroyo said it’s just a plant — like a rose or a lily.

The biggest shock wasn’t learning how to cultivate a new plant: Arroyo is experiencing what it’s like to work for a thriving business. There’s more money in cannabis, which means he can use the best tools and use the latest sustainability practices in his greenhouse.

Another plus, Arroyo said, is cannabis growers can’t apply pesticides to their products. This is a big deal to his workers, who all have backgrounds in traditional agriculture crops like cut flowers, strawberries and wine grapes.

“Our employees say, ‘This is amazing. I’m not afraid to touch the products without gloves,’” Arroyo said.

Farrar says he doesn’t see other farmers as the bad guys — everyone is trying to do business and survive — but cannabis could be a good influence for the agriculture industry.

If workers want to leave for jobs in cannabis, that should motivate other growers to be better employers, Farrar said.

“Let’s say the avocado industry is going nuts and avocado farmers are doing fantastic and expanding like crazy,” Farrar said. “I think we’d have a slightly different tone. We wouldn’t get the story that avocados are killing grapes. We wouldn’t say that. We would say avocados are doing great, hiring more people, farmers are doing well.”

Farrar said he had an eye-opening experience recently when he gave a local school superintendent and a group of principals a tour of Glass House’s operation. He said they thanked him for what he and his business have done for the region’s families.

“One thing that they said that’s really stuck with me is that they’ve appreciated that we are taking better care of their kids’ parents because the kids are better set up when they come to school and more ready to learn,” Farrar said.

FINDING COMMON GROUND

As the executive director for the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association, Kim Stemler is paid to talk about the wine business. But she spends a lot of her time these days fielding questions on cannabis.

She accepts that cannabis isn’t going away and that the two industries will have to find a way to peacefully coexist. Yet, she cautions wine producers to not get too close to the weed business since they require both federal and state permits to operate, and cannabis is not federally legal.

“I spend a lot of time talking about cannabis. It’s something people are thinking about. It’s something that competes with us on a lot of levels,” Stemler said. “And the cannabis people are trying to figure out how to market themselves the way wine does.”

There are similarities between the two industries, and there’s even an interest in “wine and weed tourism,” Stemler said.

Devon Jones, the director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, said wine grape growers in her county have suffered since recreational marijuana was legalized.

‘We have seen a certain percentage of labor transition around the time of marijuana legislation and over the last year and a half,” Jones said. “And I don’t really know if we are going to see that trend continue.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Napa County, considered the cradle of the state’s wine industry. It’s solution was to ban cannabis cultivation altogether.

Ryan Klobas, the director of the Napa County Farm Bureau, said he doesn’t see things changing anytime soon.

“One of the reasons for the ban on commercial marijuana cultivation is the labor force being pulled away from agriculture to cannabis,” Klobas said. “Right now, the Napa Farm Bureau supports a ban on marijuana cultivation.”

MOVING FORWARD

Some also wish their counties hadn’t hastily legalized cannabis, including Kevin Merrill, a wine grape grower in Santa Barbara County. While Santa Barbara voted heavily in favor of cannabis, Merrill said he would have liked for the county to slowly allow the crop and impose stronger regulations from the start, such as capping how many permits are issued.

“The climate in Santa Barbara County is ideal for many crops, including cannabis,” Merrill said. “It’s a mess out here, I wish they [Santa Barbara County] hadn’t jumped in feet first. It’ll be interesting how it continues to play out.”

Like Maria, Jeff Garcia left his career in the Salinas Valley wine industry for a job at Flora in Monterey County.

He said it’s already clear a career in cannabis will offer him more opportunities than wine. While he was able to progress to a certain extent within the wine industry — from vineyards to cellars to quality control labs — he reached a point where he’d advanced as far as he could.

Garcia said while he has a lot of respect for the wine industry, he has seen companies favor profit over employees. He says he’d like wineries to do a better job of looking out for the people doing temporary work in their vineyards.

“Some wineries don’t understand that workers can’t stay and wait for more money to do back breaking work,” Garcia said. “They’re not worried about the long run, they’re worried about how they’re going to pay their bills by the end of the month.”

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