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Harvest: faced with the long-term labor shortage, winegrowers are getting organized

“When you are a winegrower and you want to harvest your grapes, you cannot find workers today.

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Harvest: faced with the long-term labor shortage, winegrowers are getting organized

“When you are a winegrower and you want to harvest your grapes, you cannot find workers today. This is the reality,” lamented Arnaud Rousseau, the president of the National Federation of Agricultural Operators’ Unions (FNSEA), this Thursday morning on RMC. The union wants seasonal workers to be recognized as working in a job under pressure.

Across the country, on average, a third of positions are not filled, according to Jean-Marie Fabre, president of the Independent Winegrowers union, which brings together more than 7,000 professionals. “This is a trend that we have observed for about ten years,” he analyzes. And the phenomenon has accelerated since the Covid crisis, although harvest conditions have improved over the past 20 years thanks to new growing techniques which allow easier access to the bunches.

Traditionally, many pickers were local students. “But schoolchildren and university students return earlier than before, which deprives us of an important breeding ground,” explains Jean-Marie Fabre. This incompatibility of the calendar is accompanied by a scarcity of foreign workers, who now benefit from better remuneration conditions in their country of origin. Their provenance varies according to the vineyard: Eastern Europe in Burgundy, Spain, Portugal and Maghreb in Languedoc and Provence.

Like thousands of other winegrowers in France, Sandrine Henriot is faced with a lack of labor. “There are 2-3 people missing, but we will make do without it,” she says. At the head of an estate of barely 3 hectares in Beaujolais, the winegrower still hopes to be able to recruit in time, as the harvest begins tomorrow. “I have 10 people, ideally I would like to have between 13 and 15. I found four new ones yesterday, but we need at least two more by Sunday.” According to her, climatic hazards further reinforce the shortage. “This year, it’s complicated because with the summer we had, the grapes are ripening faster than expected.” As a result, everyone harvests at the same time.

In Anjou, Pauline Mourrain co-manages the Austral domain. In only 6 years since she has been a winemaker, the young woman has already seen the conditions in the sector evolve. “It’s getting harder and harder to recruit, even during the season,” she says. With 30,000 bottles per year, the operation remains on a human scale. She therefore places her ads directly on her social networks. “I was missing two people but I posted on Facebook, and in two hours it was completed.” She always provides two or three more people than necessary, because withdrawals are more and more frequent. “People say at the last moment that they are not coming, that’s the price to pay.” Isabelle Perraud, who manages the Côtes de la Molière estate in Beaujolais, relies on her Instagram community, where she posts her announcements. A system that allows it to suffer less from a lack of staff than a few years ago. “Today there is no point in publishing announcements two months in advance. Those who register this far in advance will not come,” says the operator.

To attract workers, winegrowers offer advantageous reception conditions. Isabelle Perraud and her husband are once again hosting the grape harvesters. “It had been 25 years since we stopped. There, we told them to bring a tent, but around fifteen are staying at the house,” she explains. In addition to the lunch meal and coffee in the vineyards in the morning, the winemaker now offers the evening meal.

About twenty kilometers away, Nell, just out of master's degree, was persuaded at the last minute to swell the ranks of pickers on a small family farm. The student made her decision following a stay in Beaujolais. "They were missing people, I liked working with my hands for a few days after two months spent mainly in the air-conditioned offices," she explains. In addition to the agricultural minimum wage, the young girl is housed, fed morning, noon and evening, and can even relax in a swimming pool after her day's work. Despite this unexpected boost, the estate remains understaffed, and the harvest will last longer than the usual four or five days.

In Vaucluse, Céline Barnier manages the 90 hectares of the Fontaine du Clos estate. Unlike small operations, sprawling vineyards cannot risk hiring their labor at the last minute. To produce the 300,000 bottles annually, the winegrower mechanized part of her harvest. A technique that cannot be applied to all farms that are too small or have an unsuitable topology. This is the case, for example, of certain Burgundy, Côte roaste or even Crozes-Hermitage. But mechanization is not enough to make up for the shortage of workers. So new structures are emerging, service providers specializing in vineyard work, who offer their services all year round. A solution which presents an additional cost of 20 to 25% per hectare for the winegrowers, but gives satisfaction to Céline Barnier: "they work better than a simple temporary agency, because they are trained".

Faced with these newcomers, reactions are mixed. For Isabelle Perraud, who has been in the business for thirty years, there is no question of using this solution. “I don’t want turnkey troops.” “They circulate between the different estates, imposing the harvest dates,” she denounces. Younger generations seem less hesitant about these new practices. Established in 2018, Sandrine Henriot used one of these service providers for the first time during the year, to harvest her vineyard. “It was a trained foreign workforce, who knew the work. They were friendly and competent, I think I will call them again next year,” she assures.

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