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Frigid weather stalls work on East End grapevines

Macari Vineyards manager Eric Andersen prunes grapevines on

Macari Vineyards manager Eric Andersen prunes grapevines on Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014. The cold and snow has made pruning difficult this year for the Mattituck vineyard and others in the area. An East End labor shortage is compounding the problem. Credit: Randee Daddona

It was the morning before another big winter storm in Mattituck and the crew of pruners, bundled to their eyes, stood in thick crunchy snow, snipping and yanking at grape vines as they faced the loss of another work day -- and a looming deadline to finish the job.

Pruning the tens of thousands of vines in Long Island's wine country is tedious and difficult work that must be finished by next month so the plants are ready for bud break in April.

But the winter of 2014, with its bitter cold and long-lingering snow, has made the work challenging. An East End labor shortage is compounding the problem.

At Macari Vineyards in Mattituck, vineyard managers Joseph Macari and Eric Andersen say the snow and cold have robbed them of several precious days of work and forced the crew of eight to 10 pruners to work longer hours, sometimes on Sundays, to get the job done.

The labor shortage that has gripped the North Fork in recent years, most notably during last fall's grape harvest, is lingering into this year as workers move west for less difficult and higher-paying jobs or return to homes in Latin America.

For Macari, which is seeking to hire 10 more seasonal workers next month to help with tying the vines once pruning is finished, the shortage may mean paying higher wages or doing more with fewer people if the usual influx of migrant workers doesn't show up -- as has happened the past several years.

"We lost two days last week and ended up working on Sunday," Andersen said last week. "It rattles you."

"This year is difficult because of the cold, and a lot of snow," said Carlos Javier, one of the pruners, originally from Guatemala, who worked with two of his brothers last week.

By mid-February, the pruning at Macari was just about half finished -- 100 of 200 acres. After pruning and stripping away last year's growth, workers come back to tie the sun-warmed canes to long wires that stretch the length of the vineyard.

"There's definitely less people" available to work, said Macari, noting that landscaping and construction jobs tend to pay more, and that entering or re-entering the United States for some workers has become "a lot harder."

The worker shortage means greater expense for vineyard owners and other farmers to retain good employees and lure others from different industries, and the costs aren't easily passed along to consumers.

"We can't tell our customers to give us more money because our labor costs went up," said Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, a trade group in Riverhead. "It's a challenge."

Gergela estimated that the East End agricultural industry employs about 7,000 people, some 4,000 of them seasonal. The wine industry employs as many as 1,500 of the total.

The migrant worker pool has dipped by more than a thousand in the past several years, Gergela estimated. He blamed government crackdowns on workers in the United States illegally and "generally negative attitudes" toward workers, who face rejection in some communities, Gergela said. Many simply have "moved on and out of New York," he said.

Gergela has been advocating for a change in the federal immigration law to allow for temporary visas for agricultural workers and better technology to smooth re-entry into the country. Congress is considering an immigration bill, but House leaders have balked on passing it this year. Most wineries have a core team of workers who remain in the vineyards throughout the year. But the crush of the fall harvest season requires additional workers.

For Shinn Estate Winery in Mattituck last fall, that meant hiring an all-female team of grape pickers. Co-owner David Page said it's unheard of for local high-school kids to apply for the work; he said -- he's only had one such worker in 15 years.

Rich Pisacano, vineyard manager for Wolffer Estate Vineyards and owner of Roanoke Vineyards in Riverhead, said his core workers work through the winter. They can prune about 125 vines each day.

"We lost very few days" to winter weather, Pisacano said. "The guys that work here, it always amazes me that cold weather just doesn't stop them."

Pay for such workers starts at just over $8 an hour and can go to $15, vineyard managers said.

Ron Goerler, owner of Jamesport Vineyards in Jamesport and president of the Long Island Wine Council, a local trade group, said a dwindling workforce and higher costs have led him to rethink expansion.

"The challenge for me as a grower is, do I really want to plant more? I'm not going to plant more if I can't farm it," he said. Some of his long-term workers, who have been on his farm for eight years or more, have not seen their families in as many years because of the cost and risks of getting back into the country. He also wants Congress to address reform.

"There are 11 million [undocumented] people working in this country," Goerler said. "They're here, they're paying taxes. I don't understand why it's so complicated. I don't have this business without them."

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