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UCCE Farm Advisor Blake Sanden
<p>Blake Sanden, a University of California farm advisor in Kern County, showed soil probes, tensiometers and monitoring equipment for soil moisture.&nbsp;</p>

Grape growers face new slate of labor challenges

Labor issues regulated by 11 federal agencies Growers must learn details of new labor laws Water quality issues also under the regulatory microscope

With predictions of multiple days of rain headed to a still thirsty San Joaquin Valley within hours, growers of wine grapes and others gathered at a Kerman farm to swap strategies for a range of topics from managing workers to managing water and diseases in vines.

The gathering at the Paul Toste Ranch was presented by the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association in conjunction with the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance and the USDA Risk Management Agency.

The same agenda was also presented in Shafter and Oakdale.

A speaker said water regulators might next focus their attention on water wells as concern over nitrates in drinking water continues, and another talked of regulations on employers that make it important to take certain steps to maintain a productive and motivated workforce.

Amy Wolfe, president and CEO of AgSafe, pointed to new regulations taking effect this year governing workers and the fact there are 11 federal agencies that regulate employment. She said it is important to have a job description, however brief, that outlines worker expectations.

She said it needs to be updated regularly and reviewed at the time of hiring.

“A half page with bullet points is enough,” she said.

The documenting of job descriptions, she said, is part of the Fair Pay Act that took effect Jan. 1 this year.

Among its provisions is that employers cannot pay a different rate for the same work in situations that include regions that differ in the cost of living. For example, an employer cannot pay less to a worker in Kerman than the worker in Paso Robles because Paso Robles has a higher cost of living.

The act forbids any kind of discrimination against workers – whether based on gender or location. It goes further to say that workers can talk among themselves about how much they make, comparing notes.

“They can go to the boss and say, “Joe is making more money than me,” Wolfe said. “We’re doing the same job. I am a woman.”

Lawsuits inevitable

“Claims will happen,” she said, referring to the litigious climate in California.

She said employers should specify the expected pay range and experience expectations.

Wolfe also pointed to legislation that took effect last year that makes growers and the farm labor contractors they hire jointly liable on many issues.

She said it is important that growers “communicate clearly” – “it’s not enough to have a poster or flier” – on work expectations. And that, she said can be a challenge given that employees may have the equivalent of a third grade education.

Compounding the challenge, she said, is that the Agricultural Labor Relations Board is requiring that communication must be in the language of the employee, and that includes indigent Mexican populations that do not speak either Spanish or English.

Wolfe said incentive programs are important, that clear quantifiable goals should be set. They should not always be about money, particularly given years in which it’s tough to come through with that bonus.

She said the employee, expecting that, may be chagrined because they expected the bonus to help buy Christmas gifts for family members. Wolfe said it’s important to make it clear a bonus may not be coming in tough years when the costs of production and other challenges must be met.

“One of the best incentives is public recognition,” she said. “That’s free. Two minutes in front of everybody, saying, ‘you did a good job.’”

Wolfe also talked of the need for timely and appropriate discipline “even if labor is tight.”

Parry Klassen, executive director of the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition, talked of the need for nitrogen management plans that comply with water quality regulations.

He recounted the history of regulation that began with surface water in 2003 and advanced to include ground water in 2012, and explained how grower coalitions have formed to address regulations on a regional basis.

Klassen said the coalitions are trying to keep information confidential, but community activists are pushing for more disclosure.

Nitrates in the crosshairs

He added that activists from disadvantaged communities are also focused on reports of high nitrate levels in wells. State regulators are calling for the sampling of nitrate levels in domestic wells on farms and requiring growers to supply “replacement water” in instances where nitrogen levels in wells are above a level of 10 parts per million (ppm).

Klassen said sampling of 1,200 wells on the Central Coast found 30 percent had nitrate levels above the accepted drinking water standard of 10 ppm. In the East San Joaquin Valley region, he said, there are an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 wells.

He said it will take months for the state water quality control board to sort out how best to address the issues of high nitrate levels and the reporting of coalition members.

In the meantime, Klassen says it is important that growers pay special attention to their well heads, anticipating at least a “windshield inspection” of them. He said wells should be equipped with back flow preventers on pressurized systems, and growers should look at the wells in much the same way a state inspector would: “Don’t give the inspectors a reason to stop.”

Blake Sanden, a University of California farm advisor in Kern County, echoed that sentiment, urging participants to spruce up the appearance of well heads.

Sanden opened the educational tailgate with a look at conserving water and managing irrigation. He said arriving at uniform distribution of water across a field is vital, pointing out a system at 70 percent distribution uniformity uses twice the amount of water as a field at 90 percent uniformity.

With a new season gearing up, Sanden urged growers to clean filters as needed and take a special look at sand media filters, given that an El Niño year could bring in a lot of silt, “especially if we get that miracle March.”

His checklist included flushing hoses and checking for algae slime and checking emitters for flow rates.

Sanden said there are enough irrigation scheduling aids and programs on line that Googling for “free irrigation scheduling programs” will “make your head hurt.”

Powdery mildew

Another speaker, Lindsay Jordan, UC viticulture advisor for Madera, Merced and Mariposa Counties, pointed to other on-line resources, including a UC powdery mildew risk assessment.

She said last year was a bad year for powdery mildew, and one of the first things growers should do this year is take stock of whether last year’s treatment program worked.

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“When pruning, look for scarring,” she said. “Don’t let it get ahead of you.”

If spraying is in order, Jordan said, equipment should be calibrated and nozzles checked. She recommended placing yellow cards in the canopy to be certain sprays are reaching the areas targeted.

Jordan also warned that sulfur, a cheap and effective fungicide, has some down sides, including negative effects on parasitoids of leafhopper eggs.

She also directed participants to a website showing how to test for sulfur residuals on fruit:


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