Vineyards, orchards feel pinch of seasonal workers

Farmers want to see comprehensive immigration reform

A worker at Zenith Vineyard in Salem, May 10, 2017 (KOIN)

SALEM, Ore. (KOIN) — Over the last 4 years, vineyards, orchards and nurseries have watched their number of available seasonal workers drop more than 50%, a problem the current political climate is only making worse.

“I’m worried about what it’s going to be like during harvest,” said Tim Ramey, the owner of Zenith Vineyards in Salem.

Tim Ramey, the owner of Zenith Vineyard in Salem, May 10, 2017 (KOIN)
Tim Ramey, the owner of Zenith Vineyard in Salem, May 10, 2017 (KOIN)

Both Ramey and John Zielinski, the president of the Marion County Farm Bureau, are worried and bracing for the continued fallout from the immigration crackdown.

“In 14 years we’ve never had anyone but Hispanics want to do this job, and they’re really good at it,” Ramey said.

His crew can quadruple in size with the seasonal needs. This year, he just invested in a de-leafing machine to replace the potential loss of labor.

“It’s normally by hand and it’s a job that would take my crew maybe 3 weeks to do,” he told KOIN 6 News.

John Zielinski, the president of the Marion County Farm Bureau, May 10, 2017 (KOIN)
John Zielinski, the president of the Marion County Farm Bureau, May 10, 2017 (KOIN)

Zielinski said it’s “just not a very good situation. Everyone is very uneasy.”

He said he’s feeling the pinch in his orchards and told KOIN 6 News farmers are now hiring labor contractors. But the fees involved are pushing wages as high as $17.50 per hour.

“It doesn’t pencil out for some of the crops grown,” he said.

That’s part of why he’s already transitioned 40 acres of apples to hazel nuts, which is a more mechanized crop requiring less-skilled hand labor.

Ramey’s prized pinot noir grapes will always be hand-harvested by workers at Zenith Vineyards. “There’s no way to get them off the vine unless (workers) show up.”

That’s why both farmers want to see comprehensive immigration reform to help stop draining the labor pool in Salem.