Foreign laborers: Trump not the only vineyard hiring

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Eric Trump's Albemarle vineyard uses foreign workers to prune the vines. 
Photo Amanda Maglione Eric Trump’s Albemarle vineyard uses foreign workers to prune the vines. Photo Amanda Maglione

President-elect Donald Trump made stopping illegal immigration a cornerstone of his campaign. Legal immigration, however, is another matter, and son Eric Trump’s winery has filed a request with the U.S. Department of Labor to hire six foreign workers to prune grapevines.

Trump Vineyard Estates isn’t the only local winery importing laborers on an H-2A visa.

While Eric Trump declined to comment, the winery’s general manager, Kerry Woolard, says in an e-mail, “Over 2,000 farms across the country use the program, which is specifically designed for temporary agricultural labor that cannot be filled with domestic workers.”

She notes that the employers must advertise the jobs domestically. In Virginia in 2016, 3,347 positions were certified for the visas, according to the Department of Labor, including, says Woolard, “the majority of Charlottesville farms/wineries.”

Well, not exactly the majority, according to the labor department registry, but local businesses that have active visa requests are Horton Vineyards, seeking nine workers, Jean Case and AOL founder Steve Case’s Early Mountain Vineyards wants 12 laborers, Barboursville Vineyards needs 16, and Saunders Brothers wants 109 temporary workers, although on its website, it only lists two full-time job openings. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Sharon Horton has been employing a lot of the same people from Mexico for the past 20 years, and says the H-2A program “is a good way to get legal workers.” Horton applies for 18 visas a season. “I wouldn’t be able to find 18 reliable vineyard workers” to do all the labor intensive work like trellising at the vineyard, she says.

The H-2A program “is quite costly,” says Horton, and employers have to pay roundtrip transportation, provide housing, vehicles and weekly trips to Walmart. Workers are paid $10.72 an hour.

At Early Mountain Vineyards, 85 percent of its employees are from Virginia, and 15 percent are seasonal H-2A workers, “most of whom have been with us for multiple growing seasons,” says general manager Dave Kostelnik.

All the local farms seeking foreign labor use Mas Labor in Lovingston, the largest H-2A employment agency in the country, says founder Libby Whitley, bringing in close to 15,000 laborers a year nationally.

It’s “very difficult” to find vineyard laborers for jobs such as pruning, she says. “It’s hard, arduous work,” and requires being outdoors during the winter, working six days a week and putting in longer hours during harvest.

“It’s not that Americans won’t do it,” she says. “It’s just that there’s not enough who will.”

The large farms that use the H-2A program are “not trying to deprive U.S. workers of jobs,” she says. “No one wants to work in tobacco or harvest apples. These jobs are not considered desirable employment opportunities.”

In an industry in which more than 50 percent of the farm labor workforce is undocumented, the 10-month visa program is valuable to “employers with a commitment to a legal workforce,” says Whitley.

“The notion that this is cheap foreign labor is notoriously misleading,” she says, and the program has been “unnecessarily maligned.”

Although four area wineries import laborers, the majority are able to find domestic employees. Family-owned Cardinal Point has never used H-2A workers, says operations manager Sarah Gorman. Nor has King Family Vineyards.

“We’re a family business,” says its wine club manager, Matthew Brown. “A lot of the work gets taken care of by them.”

Update 12:51pm to note Jean Case also owns Early Mountain Vineyards. 

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