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Our View: Recognize the workers who make this possible

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Late season grape harvest

Crews harvest 35 acres of cabernet sauvignon at Yount Mill Vineyards along Highway 29 on Tuesday morning, two days before the expected arrival of the first major rain storms of the season.

Winery owners and winemakers are the rock stars of the Napa Valley wine scene. They are the ones whose names you know; they are the ones profiled in glossy magazines and gauzy television shows.

But as we enter another harvest season, it is worth remembering who it is who makes the Napa Valley wine industry possible – the thousands of farm workers who tend our vineyards and harvest our grapes.

For the most part they toil in anonymity, but they are vital to the health of the vines, not just at harvest but throughout the year, from pruning in the winter to maintenance and thinning in the summer to harvest in the fall.

This is hard manual labor, but it is also skilled labor. It requires an expert eye, a deep knowledge of the vines, and a deft touch to produce grapes at the level that Napa Valley winemakers demand and expect for their raw material.

That is why the Napa Valley farm worker community is so different than the traditional stereotype of farm labor as migratory and transient, dominated by men traveling alone or in groups.

Instead, the workers in Napa’s vineyards are increasingly year-round residents of the county, or they live permanently in nearby counties and commute in, the same as workers in other industries. Also, increasingly, the vineyards are attracting female workers.

Napa Valley’s grape growing industry has recognized the change in its work force – from traditional migrant labor to a settled, specialized community.

The needs of farm workers have been an issue for the Napa Valley Grapegrowers from the moment it was founded in 1975, but it has become an increasing priority in the last decade. In 2008, the association began the annual STOMP fundraiser, which funds its programs for farm workers, and in 2011 the association spun off the Napa Valley Farmworker Foundation, dedicated specifically to the issues associated with preserving and developing the workers, the first of its kind in the nation.

Since 2011, the Foundation has raised about $3 million to support professional development opportunities for vineyard workers. Most prominently it has offered English language courses for Spanish-speaking workers, but it has also offered courses in leadership and management and skills such as pruning and forklift certification. It has sponsored courses on safety and on etiquette and harassment to ease problems in mixed-gender work crews. It sponsors the annual pruning contest to recognize professional excellence among the workers.

And it doesn’t just embrace the workers themselves, but also their families, offering classes on topics such as “Navigating the American School System” and sponsoring the annual Día de la Familia festival.

The Register editorial board met with Foundation leadership recently and we were impressed with their vision of creating a sustainable and skilled workforce in the field and for integrating the workers and their families into the wider community. Their mission includes building a sense of pride and professionalism in the vineyards and raising the workers’ public profile and prestige so younger workers will be attracted to grape farming as a viable and honorable career.

The Foundation is also developing as a voice in political and economic discussions of how to provide affordable housing for these workers and their families as the workforce evolves beyond the traditional dorm-style housing offered at existing farm worker centers.

Based on our meeting, we are pleased with the work the Foundation is doing and we are impressed with the development of our farm worker community.

We commend the Foundation on its efforts on behalf of these workers, and we urge all of you not already involved in the grape and wine industries to recognize and celebrate the important part these workers play in making the Napa Valley what it is.

The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of Publisher Brenda Speth, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.

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