I enjoy penning this column each week. For 486 weeks over more than nine years, I’ve covered multiple topics focusing on a plethora of wine industry goings-on. I’ve never been at a loss to ferret out a kernel of information or news that I can nurture and expand into an expansive view or viewpoint for a column.
But over the last year or so, I’ve had an increasingly difficult time identifying fact from opinion, or fiction, in the googlesphere of journalism and colloquial ramblings.
As a result, I now find myself plodding through every source of information I consider when penning a column, checking and double-checking, until I am confident the information is reliable and accurate.
Last week I reported on the plight of American workers in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the dawn of the new Industrial Revolution. I reported that workers in small American wineries have been somewhat immune due to their ability to continuously adapt and weather numerous storms.
An important, even critical, component of the success of the American wine industry, and the agricultural industry in general, that I deferred presenting, is the contribution of migrant labor.
The wine industry has perennially had difficulties in finding workers. In the mid-1800s, such shortages forced farmers, large and small, to legally bring into the United States thousands of seasonal workers, mainly from Mexico, who returned to their homeland once crops were harvested. Over the last 50 years, the need for seasonal, and increasingly, permanent labor, has increased significantly. Many employers hired these workers, even though, increasingly, many illegally entered the United States.
What to do? President Trump pledged to stop illegals and he has begun the process. But there are likely repercussions if he carries out his campaign promise.
Whether legal or illegal/undocumented, the contributions of these workers are vital to the success of the wine industry, and by extension, the agriculture industry.
There are 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, of which 5.8 million (52 percent) are Mexican (down from 12 million in 2009). Source: Department of Homeland Security.
The highest percentage, about 16 percent, of all undocumented immigrants work in the agriculture industry. Source: U.S. Census Bureau.
Without undocumented immigrants in the workforce, fruit production would decline by 30 to 61 percent. Source: American Farm Bureau Federation.
One of the key issues is finding and recruiting replacement farm workers. However, there aren’t as many willing, callous-handed American laborers willing to take on farm labor. Here’s an example of this dilemma. In 2011, the North Carolina Growers Association had 6,500 farm jobs available, all of them in or next to counties with unemployment rates greater than 10 percent. Only 268 of the roughly 500,000 unemployed applied. Fully 90 percent of them were hired, but only 163 showed up to work on the first day, and only seven workers completed the growing season. Source: Joint report of the Partnership for a New American Economy and the Center for Global Development.
Another counterargument is that automation can cure a good deal of the potential problem. However, many small farmers and wine producers are not able to afford the high cost of mechanical harvesters. They also eschew the reduced efficiency of mechanized equipment.
One possible compromise: rather than deport illegal immigrants, find a way to keep the law-abiding men and women working, who provide a vital service to our country. Process them into the economy as seasonal or full-time workers with H-2A visas (as migrant workers), and then provide a lawful, and monitored, path to citizenship.
As we’re finding out with each passing day, initial comments and proclamations from the president are not the final word on matters of policy. What remains to be seen is the final enacted legislation that will rule the land. Fulfilling a campaign promise from the Oval Office (or Air Force One) is one thing; effectuating reasonable change through the constitutional process may be a more effective solution.
Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted numerous wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @sharingwine.