We need a commonsense guest worker program

October 29, 2011

John Salisbury


A report on our Citizen wine grape picking crew. After a “Call to Arms” for local unemployed citizens to pick grapes that started in our monthly column in the Avila Community News and our blog inthevines.com, we were picked up by Cal Coast News, Lewis Perdue’s international “New Fetch” wine blog (you should get it if you want to know what is going on in the wine business worldwide), ‘Wines and Vines’, WineBusiness.com and by KSBY’s television newscast.

We had over 80 inquiries for the jobs. We had forty come in and fill out a five page application from which we picked 22 to come in for an interview with four of those not showing up. So we took the 18 remaining and started picking on a Wednesday. That day cost us over $500 a ton which is three times the normal. The next day it picked up a little.

We were becoming worried because we were getting behind as the Pinot Noir was quickly getting ripe. So we brought in one of our veteran documented crews on the third day. They (75 percent women) lapped the citizen crew. The fourth day was a Saturday and four of the “citizen crew” didn’t call or show up and at the end of the day we let another six go because they just weren’t up to the job and hadn’t showed any improvement or the desire to do so. It was obvious this was their first time in the field or else the first job ever for some of the younger pickers (some were “volunteered” by their mothers).

That left us with eight, one of whom could only work two weeks resulting in the “Magnificent Seven” (out of 80) and quite a diverse group it is. The leader is a retired Lt. Col. Air Force Chaplin, plus an unemployed waitress, a graphic designer, a fine young man from Transitions Mental Health, and three young fellows with various degrees of college education. Three members of this crew do quality control by taking leaves and bad bunches out of the bins plus picking while the others are pure pickers. To date they are averaging around $12 an hour.

At this point, I wouldn’t trade them for anybody but unquestionably they will not be back next season because they will all certainly get better jobs in the meantime.

We had to really chaff through the straw to get the kernels and this process is not sustainable. We are bit lucky here because we are near urban populations. But what about those in the remote rural areas where most of the ag-jobs are? How do they get the unemployed, hours away, to the fields? Because of regulations (ask Dan DeVaul), you can’t house them anymore unless you have something akin to a Motel 6 on the ranch. How are farmers going to be able to do this with our unemployed with an unreal dropout rate of over 90 percent as in our case? We guaranteed $80 a day and worked mostly six to seven hours a day to get the fruit into our co-op crusher cool and before the bigger growers tied up the equipment. So the days were not that long for the tough work and the weather was cool in Avila, but we still couldn’t keep most of the citizen pickers.

Nationwide there is an acute shortage of farm workers including California. Washington apple growers who are running radio ads offering $120 to $150 a day to pick apples with few takers. Washington state officials figure that the agriculture labor force is about 72 percent “document challenged.”

Georgia figures there are 5,200 jobs short for field workers. Alabama, which brought it on themselves with the country’s toughest immigration laws, is reporting huge shortage of labor for construction, agriculture and poultry. Texas is looking for pickers for organic crops without much luck. When these crops are not picked, all the people, mostly U.S. citizens, who process, ship, sell, provide goods and services to all parts of the agribusiness chain also don’t work. The domino effect is tremendous.

Farmers are stuck to the land and do not have the privilege of an Apple or Gap that can move their production to countries with many low wage workers with little protection for the employees.

Contrary to popular belief, we usually pay at least 20 percent above the minimum wage. We are regularly inspected by OSHA, EPA, Air Quality Control, Dept. of Pesticide Regulations, Regional Water, and County Ag Commissioner and on and on. We supply the safest food in the world at a reasonable price that must rise just by supply and demand if this labor situation is not brought under control.

The alternate is the importation of foods grown with $8 a day labor and a lack of government oversight on food safety. If you like your oil coming from unfriendly regimes, then you are really going to love your food coming from them.

I have seen many comments about subsidies for farmers – hardly in California. My family has been farming in the state for 161 years (1850) and there were not any subsidies in tough times for us when trying to hang onto the farm. Crop insurance costs money and doesn’t come close to paying for what can be lost in potential wine sales.

With the coddling child labor laws, farmers can’t take the risk of hiring anyone under 18. They can’t use ladders, work near operating equipment, use sharp equipment (shears) and many other restrictions which have led to the demise of the present day work ethic that many of my generation fortunately developed as kids while working on farms and at other businesses. How many of our unemployed are fraudulently gaming the system with unemployment insurance, welfare, and social security disability payments instead of being available to work on farms? At least 20 of the applicants that responded to our call for pickers were physically able to do the job but wanted cash so as to not jeopardize their government payments.

We need a guest worker program now. The Obama administration has initiated twice as many immigration enforcement cases against businesses in the first seven months of this year as compared to the year before. And he gets a pass with the Hispanic voters?

The labor pool is drying up because of fears of the migrant workers who are finding out that the business owners can’t risk the penalties for hiring undocumented workers. We need a guest worker program with USDA certified employers, taxes paid, proper wages, good working conditions, licensed and insured drivers. They can easily net a thousand dollars a month which goes a long way in a town or village where workers may make $250 a month if they have a job.

In a few years, most won’t be back to be replaced with others, because they will have made enough money to buy a farm, market, or be able to use their acquired skills in business and live where they really want to be – home. There also will not be the need to bring their families across the border to live. That practice started when the Bracero Program was halted in the mid-1960s and has led to some of our social problems of today. A commonsense Guest Worker Program is needed now.

John is a 6th generation California farmer whose family has been continuously farmed in California for 160 years starting in the Sacramento Delta in 1850. John now concentrates on farming 45 acres of wine grapes in the Avila Valley and Paso Robles producing Salisbury Vineyard wines.


I grew up picking walnuts in the hills of Paso Robles. My parents and myself, along with my siblings, would go out every morning when the sun first appeared and pick up walnuts for $2.00 a burlap bag. This is how we made Christmas money. We did this for extra income during my entire youth. I have also picked cotton in Oklahoma. I learned from these experiences. Where I am now in a better position financially, I would certainly not look down on this kind of job if I needed to eat. You do what you must if starvation is your motivation. If a farmer cannot hire people to harvest his crop, he should look to do it himself or not be a farmer. I am against the guest worker program as long as it promotes illegals being here.


I am against the guest worker program as long as it promotes illegals being here”

If it were a guest worker program then they wouldn’t be here illegally.


The way the bracero program worked, after the workers–who were recruited from Mexico, paid a bonus, and their transportation to where they were going to work paid–had been here for awhile, they could become citizens.


Not to say that a guest worker program would not be a good idea – after we get our own capable workers back on the job.


So in the meantime, do you want the small farmers to go out of business or move their businesses to Mexico?


I would be very surprised if farmers moved to Mexico. Mexico is simply too destabilized by the drug-cartel-driven economics of violence, and breeds a culture of exhorbitant “protection fees,” which quickly eat up any profit made.



They are moving to Mexico and they will more and more if they can’t get seasonal workers. I’ve mentioned many times that we have some farmers in my family (I’ll bet Mr. Salisbury knows one of them as he’s a winemaker in the Edna Valley). Awhile back one of them (a vegie grower) sent me a website of a fellow farmer friend of theirs that packed up and went to So. America. He has a huge farm, very big, I just looked for the website and couldn’t find it.


Thank you Mr. Salisbury for updating us on this, I find it pretty interesting.

Many of the people here won’t be satisfied until you move your vineyards to Mexico due to not being able to hire people at a reasonable rate.

Look at what is happening in Georgia right now. They have cracked down and have implemented tougher immigrating laws and they are strictly enforcing those laws. In just a short period of time many Ga. farmers are wondering how they are going to keep their farms operating as they can’t get laborers. Ga. farmers pay on average $3.00 above the minimum wage but they still can’t get laborers. You are right Mr. Salisbury, there needs to be some type of worker program to let people come over from south of the border to make an honest living because the Anglos just won’t do it.


“Is ther something in the air today that narrows the minds and intellect of Americans? Something that burns away the part of the brain that logic is formed? Or are we programmed?”

Oh that’s rich,,very funny considering the rest of you post.

“just wait awhile, things are bound to get to the point whitey will be begging for picker positions”

So in the meantime what should the farmers do, just sit and let their crops die until as you say ‘whitey’ is begging for picker positions? How long do you think (and I’m using the term ‘think’ loosely) a farmer can last like that? I’ve got news for you Mr. Logic, maybe one or two seasons, then they’re done. ‘Whitey’ will be begging for picker positions, you mean how they’re begging for picker positions in Georgia (not) and the farmers are ready to go belly up,,like that? Can you not read Mr intellect, can you not see that farmers will move their farms to South America?

“Food prices are artificial IF they are priced illegally (with illegal labor) which they are.”

Mr. Logic, the farmers are already paying a fair wage, they can’t pay more. Farmers are now paying $11.00 -$14.00 an hour for farm laborers, not including the supervisors or permanent workers that get paid more, so how much should they pay, $20.00 an hour? You must be a republican, that is the republican way, push the small guys out and let the corp farms take over, take these jobs to other countries. One can barely find produce grown here anyway, we might as well get rid of the American farm industry all together. Gosh you are logical. Try and read this slowly: The farmers are not ‘pricing illegally’, they are paying a fair wage, paying for insurance and taking taxes out of those checks. Do you get it, you are WRONG.

I would really like some specific answers if you’re up to it. How much should Mr. Salisbury pay his pickers? Should he and other farmers just go out of business while waiting for ‘whitey’ or should they move their farms to other countries? Please enlighten us with your vast knowlege.


I don’t want to be a part of the name-calling here but I would like to say that there are many who have gone “belly up” as their sources of income have dried up due to the influx of cheap labor. Carpenters, roofers, framers etc. These are people who were raising families on these jobs and they were happy to do them. I grew up in a blue-collar town where a good share of families had dads who worked at the packing plant. The kids had health insurance and a decent home. I think the dads made well over “an average” of $12 per hour – and that was thirty five years ago. Again, back then $30,000 bought the equivalent of $175,000 today. The working class in this country has been completely undermined by business and their obsession with slave labor. And we all pay the price of the poverty in less-safe streets, less well-kept recreational areas, ineffective schools etc. I don’t care if you’re white, brown or pink. Poverty breeds a lot of scat.

It’s a system wide problem that definitely creates all sorts of ripple effects. High school students rarely get any work experience anymore because the fast food restaurants and retail establishments find the rules burdensome so they go for cheap, easy, and (often) illegal labor. We are left with a generation of kids who don’t know how to earn what they consume and can’t seem to get out of their parents house and start contributing to the economy.

I don’t know that an Occupy movement is going to do it. I’m afraid we will probably keep making minor cosmetic changes for quite some time, sweeping the dirt pile here and there until it get’s so bad that things truly get ugly. I’ve come to understand the NRA position on gun control – that’s how bad I think it might get in my lifetime.


OMG since when is $11.00 an hour slave labor? My gosh no wonder Mr. Salisbury can’t get Anglos to work for him. One of my kids is making working his way through college and he/she’s making $11.00 an hour, I guess that makes me a terrible parent to let my kid do slave labor. How do you suggest keeping farmers from going to other countries to farm because they can’t afford the high labor costs? Many are going to other countries already. $11.00 an hour isn’t a lot, it’s not for everyone but there should be a segment of the population that only needs to make that much ie college students. Fast food joints pay that much or less, are those employees slaves as well? What should minimum wage be, $15, 20.00?

When you talk about carpentry and construction that’s a horse of a different color. White Americans seem willing to do these jobs but they just won’t work in the fields, I don’t know why but it’s true. I would bet that if you offered them $20.00 an hour that they still wouldn’t do it, not saying that they should get that much but it’s probably true.


It is not slave labor for a college student. (I would guess your college student is doing something a lot less strenuous than picking) As I recall, your college student is being subsidized by the government as well through grants. Possibly even living at home? If a college student can’t be completely self-supporting at that wage, how can someone be expected to raise a family? What happens is that, like Walmart workers, we taxpayers end up covering all of the expenses that can’t be covered by that wage. We protect the profits of the lucky — while the jobs of the carpenters and roofers and meat packers… let’s just say they aren’t so lucky. The collateral damage of the “they do the jobs no one else wants” campaign.

Even more ironic is that the same people who seem to be okay with these insidious costs to the taxpayer and the economy can be found spitting fire about public employees and how they leech off the system.

They powers have done a really good job of keeping us from connecting dots.


No grants, but we did go in and submit our FASTFA. Some jobs shouldn’t be forced to pay what it takes to support a family. If you work at Micky Ds you won’t be doing to well at supporting a family. Should farmers pay laborers the same as a college grad should make, should a farm laborer make the same as teacher?

So what should farm laborers get paid? As far as carpenters and roofers, I don’t know any that get paid $11.00 an hour. Prevailing wage is something like $34.00 an hours but if it’s not prevailing wage, perhaps journeymen start off at a lower wage but that doesn’t last long, they still make quite a bit more than farm laborers do.

I keep asking you guys what minimum wage should be and I don’t get answers. I also keep asking, what do you want the the farmers to do, go out of business or move their farms to Mexico or So. America? I mean those are the choices, they won’t pay more so are in favor of no longer having American farms?


You are on me for calling you names excuse me you are the one that started with this:

“Is ther something in the air today that narrows the minds and intellect of Americans? Something that burns away the part of the brain that logic is formed?”

Obviously you are a legend in your mind, you feel that you are Mr. Logical and Mr. Intellect but after reading your posts and especially your last one I do have some choice names for you.

I have never said that illegals should be able to come up here and work, I just want to make that clear to the thinking people in this thread,,not you. I said that there should be a guest worker program. That you don’t care if we loose our farmers is not even worth addressing, ignorance is bliss so I’ll let you stay in your blissful world.

“as they breed like rabbits…”

“Do you enjoy smelling them in grocery lines?”

Your entire post was rude and offensive but those lines are simply bigoted, you aren’t even worth posting to, you are not worth the dirt under my shoes. What nasty horrible things to say about people. I would rather be next to ‘them’ in the grocery line than you any day. Now I will call you a name and I hope you get to read it before it’s gets taken off of here. You are a racist. That goes to you, not korie not to those that disagree with me and are able to have a civil discussion but to you. You’re parents really messed up with you.


Typoqueen, you are no better. Your posts are just as rude.


You get what you put out. So do you feel that those things that he said about Hispanics are acceptable: “as they breed like rabbits…”

“Do you enjoy smelling them in grocery lines?”.

Never mind, obviously you do agree with him or else you would have addressed him instead of me.

So sad, so much racism still in this country, one would think that we’d gotten past this but here it is loud an clear.


A user who used this thread as “a racist sounding board” has been banned and their commentary deleted. some orphan replies remain, ?????s


It amuses me when conservatives say that a free market environment isn’t working for them. I feel as though your labor experiment was designed to fail. Wouldn’t you get better results if the new pickers worked alongside veteran pickers? A five page application for a seasonal job that lasts a few weeks? Perhaps your problems of retaining workers has less to do with them being unwilling to work than you suggest.


Excellent exercise, and excellent summary of the exercise.

Sad commentary of the state of the unemployed labor pool. Particularly sad are those who were concerned about jeapordizing their unemployment check with the performance of Work.


Huh? Why dump your unemployment ck. in favor of a wage that is designed for an illegal? Because you want to keep wine prices down?

Ridiculous comment.


I think you are making my point for me.

Thru unemployment benefits, we have created the concept of “work not worth doing.”


Mr.Salisbury said that he pays $12.00 and hour not 9. $12 isn’t bad for basically unskilled labor. I’m not saying it’s good, it would be hard raise a family on that but it’s not bad for a collage student, someone young and single or someone that needs a temp job.

I believe that farmers are fair to their pickers, it’s hard work but I know of farmers that even pay more than what Mr. Salibury pays. There are farmers in my family and they are fair to their employees and I believe that most farmers including Mr. Salisbury are also fair. If you start making them pay $16-20 bucks an hour then we will lose our family farms to the big corp. farms ie Dole or/and we will see more farmers heading off to Mexico and so. America, which many are doing now.


Really good piece. It’s the reality on the ground.

Start with the jobs these illegals allegedly take from Americans, then try and replace them with 80 American applicants and you end up with about only half a dozen Americans who can even finish the first day and none will be back next year.

It’s called supply and demand people. The illegals are here because of demand. They are the supply.


They had 80 appicants and only hired 20. I say hire all of them to get some real statistics. I think it could be WHO they hired. Just because it looks good on a piece of paper doesnt mean they will be fit for the job! 80 people were willing to do the job or else they wouldnt have applyed!


“Crop insurance costs money and doesn’t come close to paying for what can be lost in potential wine sales.”

Mr.Salisbury, tell the good people to whom you are speaking to how much you pay in Crop Insurance premium each year. Then tell the same people how much the government pays you for crop loss in the event of a 50% or more loss. The people would be angered by the ridiculous premium you pay versus the amount the taxpayer (government) pays you for the loss. You are subsidized. Be truthful.


Mr. Salsbury, you make some very good points, you have presented your facts and findings in a precise, clinical manner that reenforces your call for a guest worker program. I see a couple of problems with getting this program off the ground however. Since we would be having foreign nationals coming here to be part of the guest worker program, the federal government will be in charge of implementing this program. Among the leading concerns of the government will be control and oversight of exactly who gets to come here to make sure that no one who could possibly be considered a “terrorist” or something. Most likely there will need to be some sort of investigative reporting on each individual screening them for potential contacts. There is going to be a lot of costs involved in implementing the program that perhaps possibly hasn’t been considered yet, and since this program is going to benefit agriculture specifically, and all of us generally due to keeping the costs of harvesting the crops that feed us, it will be a benefit to us all, BUT, I see some politicians that are going to make a lot of noise about who is going to pay for this or where another program is cut to provide funding for this since they oppose raising taxes on anyone for any reason any time. LIke I said, you have made a great case for your cause, but a little more thought in how to implement the program in this day and age is going to be challenge, to say the least. Good luck.


Braceros, Take 2. Sounds good to me. Or raise the wages to the point where legal citizens will be willing to do the work. This will raise the price of a bottle of wine, but it will be more of a true market value.

Also, your point about the overly coddling child labor laws is well taken. Anyone old enough to drive should be allowed to work as much as they want, doing whatever they are competent enough to be hired to do.