Musings of A Suburban Farmer on Harvest Day

My grape crop 10/2/09

Today I picked the grapes from my vineyard.  I got 366 usable pounds from my 25 vines even though I lost at least 100 pounds to birds that somehow penetrated my elaborate net system.  The harvest will still give me between 90 and 115 bottles of what I hope will be decent wine – at least as decent as the ’06 I’m happily sipping right now.

I used the term “Suburban Farmer” as a shameless lure to get folks to read this blog.  To be honest, I’m not a “Farmer”  at all.   I grow grapes as a hobby, and since I am a self-employed consultant, the time I spend growing these grapes has an “opportunity cost” far greater than what the Syrah I bottle will be worth as a reduction in my substantial wine budget.  I think it is great to garden or do home wine making, and I wish even more people had the opportunity to do it.  It is good for body and soul – better than the money I could have made.  But this is still not farming.  I have too much respect for real farmers to call it that.

So if you are concerned about sustainability (which I assume you are if you read this blog) you may be asking, “OK, where is the sustainability angle in this blog post?”  Its coming.

As I picked grapes, crushed and de-stemmed them, and inoculated them with yeast (a process that took from 9am to 8 pm) I had a lot of time to think.  I thought about the sustainability of labor-intensive crops like wine grapes (many other vegetable and fruit crops fall in this category, particularly the Organic version).  My little hobby vineyard requires a LOT OF WORK.  I have to prune the vines in February, and spray them to prevent mildew and bunch rot ever couple of weeks from March to July. I have to do “leaf removal” to get air and light to the clusters 2 or 3 times from May to June.  I have to control the mealy bugs and the ants that spread them.  I have to manage the cover crop that grows under the vines all year.  I monitor the sugar and acid by sampling the grapes every week from late August to October to know when I should harvest.  This hobby is a lot of work (it is a good thing I have a wonderful, tolerant wife).

The grapes from the first 8 vines in my vineyard

Real grape farmers do a lot of work as well.  They are much more efficient because of scale, but its still a lot of work and a lot of it requires hand labor.  OK, finally,  here is the sustainability angle:  the labor force for growing wine grapes (and all the other hand labor-intensive crops) is NOT sustainable.

I don’t say that lightly.  The California wine grape industry has been a pioneer in the whole field of agricultural sustainability and were way ahead of the curve on this issue.  The problem is that the labor piece is not really in their control.

It is a shameful thing for the USA that we are all highly dependent on “undocumented alien labor” for a great deal of our specialty crop agriculture.  Wine grapes are probably a bit better than most crops just because there is so much hand labor need that it can justify year-round farm labor employment that might attract a US citizen.  But still, for wine grapes and most fruits and vegetables there is an absolute need for “seasonal laborers.”  These are physically demanding jobs with some occupational hazards like excess sun exposure, physical injury potential, ergonomic issues, monotony, and in increasingly rare cases – hazardous pesticide exposure.

The fact that our absolute need for this kind of labor depends on a work-force that has to live in the shadows is inexcusable from an ethical point of view.  There are forces on both the Right and the Left who cause this injustice to continue.  Unrealistic (and often bigoted and particularly nasty) folks on the Right deny the obvious need for this labor force that will never come from our current citizen-base.  There are idealistic folks on the Left that argue against even a really good “guest worker” system with the objection that this either creates a “permanent underclass” or that it will “drag down wages for unskilled laborers of all types.”

I’m going to blow right past all of those specious arguments with a real “sustainability” argument.  Demographic trends will eventually turn our political dysfunction on this issue on its head (something we richly deserve).  As slow as it is, economic development-driven demographic trends in the regions that have provided the “illegal” workers who have long tended our food crops are moving below “replacement rate.”  That means that they are going to be moving somewhat like the trends that are actually now problematic in places like Japan, Italy or Russia where so few children have been born to recent generations that the society is rapidly becoming much older on average.  The US would be in that boat if it weren’t for immigration (legal and illegal).  In the not-to-distant future there are not going to be very many young people with limited education or alternative employment options  who are willing to do the hand labor that most of our fruit and vegetable crops require.  In many ways that is a great thing.  But who is going to do the hard, agricultural work!  Sitting here, feeling sore from doing “farm labor” because I’m a “desk-jockey”  makes this question quite real to me.  Who will do this hard work?

We are probably OK on these demographic trends on the vast acreage, grain crops where mechanization allows a single individual to farm thousands of acres.  There are efforts at robotics for specialty crops, but that is a really challenging area.

Bottom line: Your fruits, vegetables and wine are not sustainable with our currently dysfunctional, demographically challenged, ethically reprehensible, farm labor paradigm.

So where does that put me as a suburban hobby “farmer?”   Needing to find a better way to keep out the birds and rodents!  Someday  soon I might need to provide most of my own wine! (that statement reflects my doubts about how our political system will deal with this issue).

You are welcome to leave comments here or you can also email me at

All images from me, Steve Savage

Written by sdsavage

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