By: Judit Monis, Ph.D.
I attended an interesting session at the 2021 Unified and Wine Symposium. As most of the meetings and seminars during the COVID pandemic, all sessions were held virtually. We learned from three different vineyard professionals: Sadie Drury (North Slope Management, Washington), Tony Bugica (Atlas Vineyard Management, Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma, California) and Craig Ledbetter (Vino Farms, Lodi, and California Central Coast). The presentations focused on the changes viticulturists and their crews had to implement in their vineyards and offices to adapt to the requirements of physical distancing, isolation, and quarantine during the COVID 19 pandemic.
On March 11 last year, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of SarsCoV-2 (the virus that causes of COVID-19) a pandemic. At the time I was In Argentina and had to cancel most of my vineyard visits to return home on the last available flight. Since then, most of my work has been done using Zoom, email, and phone calls. In this article I describe how vineyard personnel, who do not have the luxury to work from home, managed their field work during the pandemic.
Lise Asimont (the session moderator) opened the session reminding everyone that 2020 was a challenging year for vineyard operations due to labor shortages, global pandemic, and wildfires (especially throughout the United States West Coast). In her words “this session is about making lemonade out of lemons”. The speakers were chosen to represent growers in different viticulture regions in the Western United States to discuss how vineyard operations and labor practices adapted to the COVID 19 Pandemic. It is expected that the information presented on the contingency planning of these professionals made will help others cope in the future.
Changes Implemented Due to the Pandemic Common to all Speakers
Everyone concurred that the most important issue was to keep all employees safe (people first attitude). Right away internal management discussed safety and well-being of teams. Physical distancing and mask wearing was immediately made mandatory. Keeping employees six feet apart in the vineyard is not a difficult task, as crews can work every other planted row. When maintaining physical distance, the workers were allowed to take their masks off which made their work easier (especially in hot days or for workers who wear glasses). There was a large investment in cleaning, disinfecting supplies, and bottled water.
There was an increase of communication and frequent meetings to update and train employees on COVID 19 symptoms, how SarsCoV-2 spreads, local resources, company rules, community outreach, etc. Because of the influx of information, it was important to stop misinformation from the media. Training included: the need for increased sanitation frequency, hand hygiene, use of sanitizer, avoiding touching each other (shaking hands, hugging, etc.) Van and food sharing was immediately stopped. Equipment and properties were assigned to specific operators providing greater comfort on sanitation. Affiliating a crew with a property and equipment allowed them to develop a complete understanding of the safety processes and expectations. At the same time the amount of contact needed was reduced. Family units constituted a work group as people who live together do not present an increased transmission risk while working together
Lessons Learned from Individual Speakers
Sadie Drury’s management purchased thermometers for each employee to perform self-temperature monitoring. Because her company employs people living in two different states (Oregon and Washington), there was a need to be aware of health directives from both states and communicate this accordingly. The management planned on secondary pandemic challenges, such as potential reduced labor. To circumvent this, there was a focus on cross training and determine how to reduce labor. One strategy was to adopt a crawling canopy in the vineyard. Therefore, shoot thinning or leaf pulling were not performed. The strategy paid off yielding good quality fruit while utilizing a reduced number of field workers. This allowed the company to sell the produce at a discounted price. What made the company successful was the flexibility, change of farming practices, managing people, and communication. With the challenge of new COVID variants there is still uncertainty and It is expected that the changes adopted by this vineyard management will continue through 2021 and beyond.
Tony Bugica was quick to apply his knowledge on medical procedure as his background includes pre-med and EMT training. These skills became helpful during the pandemic. Atlas Vineyard Management (Atlas) operations were decentralized and immediately eliminated in person meetings. Whoever could work from home did so. There was no knowledge on the use of masks and face shields but it was applied to the everyday farming activities. Atlas developed training programs that were rolled out to the personnel to promotes a sense of community and teamwork. Future training in larger formats include employees in their own cars like a drive-in movie. Communication has always been a challenge for the business and the pandemic forced the staff to be out of their comfort zone of relying on in-person meetings. Tony mentioned that he was vaccinated as he is a member of the board of “La Familia Sana”. La Familia Sana, a grassroots organization in Northern Sonoma County with the mission of providing health and wellness through education, direct support and advocacy to Latinx and Indigenous communities.
This group has been providing education to farmworkers about COVID prevention, vaccine safety, and how and where to get the immunized. The plan is to develop a brochure to encourage workers to become vaccinated against the COVID virus. Atlas hopes to organize on site group vaccinations for workers willing to get immunized. The response to illness in the pandemic has helped the company to slow down and get away from the workaholic mentality. They have learned that pushing people to come to work when not feeling well can spread disease. In his words “workaholics transmit disease”. The year 2021 will bring a new way of working, for example: meeting in trucks rather than in the office. Fires and Pandemic have made everyone closer and stronger, more efficient, personally and in business.
According to Tony Bugica, safety is important, no grape is worth a person’s life, so the workers were asked to slow down or even stop when there was any risk.
Craig Ledbetter stressed that agriculture is not a one size fits all. Communication was number one key to successful implementation of the company’s plan. Clearly, field operations are very different from office operations. Changes had to be implemented from day one. They determined who could or could not work outside of the office. The company has many individual offices. People who had to stay in their offices could keep their windows open. In addition, the company invested un ventilation upgrades to make sure that the air was sucked in and out and not into some other office. Further, the contact with vendors and employees was minimized.
Vino Farms had to deal with positive cases, their human resources director was an absolute rock star throughout the entire process. From the start of the pandemic that the State of California appeared not to be equipped to handle contact tracing. Vino Farms did the best they could to implement their own contact tracing. There were several positive cases but only 25% of the employees that tested positive for the virus were contacted by the state but their HR director did. The HR staff worked around the clock, seven days a week to make sure that the employees were kept safe and informed.
The 2020-21 season has been a difficult period of time with statewide fires, there were missed days of work especially on the Paso Robles area. The company did their best with a reduced crew by limiting hand picking. Some changes that were implemented will continue. The 2020 year was one of the worst years for viticulture, besides COVID, fires were a huge issue, and fruit was rejected due to smoke taint. It is Craig Ledbetter’s hope (and all of ours) that 2021 will be a recovery year.
Many of you may wonder why a plant pathologist is writing about the modifications that vineyard managers needed to implement during the COVID 19 pandemic. Firstly, I am a pathologist and have specialized in viral and other pathogen infection in plants. Also, I have followed the pandemic with great interest, learning about viral transmission, vaccines, and ways to mitigate the disease. For many years I have preached growers on the use of different activities to mitigate plant disease. Most of the time, I have been told that these methods (testing prior to planting, entering clean fields prior to working in infected ones, change of workers clothing to avoid movement of mealybugs, etc.) are expensive and labor intensive. We heard from the speakers that “workaholics transmit disease” and that they have been compassionate and asked their workers to “slow down”. Therefore, I think that my message to vineyard managers and nursery personnel will probably be heard and applied now that we have all gone through this pandemic together. So, I close this article, wishing health to all vineyard workers, their families, and grapevine plantings.
Judit Monis, Ph.D. is a California-based plant health consultant, provides specialized services to help growers, vineyard managers, and nursery personnel avoid the propagation and transmission of disease caused by bacteria, fungi, and viruses in their vineyard blocks. Judit is fluent in Spanish and is available to consult in other important wine grape growing regions of the word. Due to COVID 19 Pandemic, Judit is available to perform virtual vineyard visits. Please visit juditmonis.com for information or contact firstname.lastname@example.org to request a consulting session.