The vineyards need immigrants. The economy needs vineyards.

Art Hunt, co-owner, and co-founder of Hunt Country Vineyards in Branchport, recently sent a letter to Congressman Tom Reed. It was signed by over 50 winery owners, vineyard owners, and individuals connected to the Finger Lakes wine industry. Their concern is that, without legally-employed immigrant workers, our local wineries and vineyards - and agriculture in general - could suffer a devastating blow.

“For 35 years Congress has been kicking the can down the road on creating a legal and safe guest-worker program to support America’s farms and agriculture,” wrote Hunt. “It’s a huge problem for all of us and an issue our Congress needs to correct. If Congress doesn’t do their job and create a safe legal way to allow foreign workers to come and go to the waiting jobs in America, many local businesses in our district will be destroyed because of the Trump administration’s current approach to immigrant workers.”

There are currently 22 wineries in Yates County. According to a 2010 report from the Yates County Chamber of Commerce (the last date available for this report), local wineries produced retail sales totaling $17.9 mil for that year. This translated into $715,615 of sales tax revenue for the county; 8 percent of total sales tax revenue for Yates County in 2010.

That same year, the wineries brought well over half a million visitors to local restaurants, hotels, bed and breakfasts, gas stations, and convenience stores. The Chamber of Commerce estimates that this total economic impact of the wineries on the county’s economy in 2010 was around $41.1 million.

Clearly, the local wineries have a significant and positive impact for Yates County.

And their success or failure is largely dependent on one thing: the grapes.

At present, caring for and harvesting the grapes means relying on workers from Central America and Mexico.

Hunt and other vineyard owners typically hire these men and women like they would hire anyone else. The workers fill out 19 forms and provide the necessary proof of eligibility to work in the United States from Column A or Columns B and C on the back of the form; it’s the same form and the same of proof eligibility that all American workers are required to fill out and provide. The workers receive a W2.

They are covered by workers compensation and pay into social security.

A very few wineries in the Finger Lakes region use the federal H-2A program to employ foreign workers. This is a completely different relationship between employer and employee. Employers must provide housing and maintain certain standards in these residences; they must provide transportation when it is required, and they must guarantee a certain amount of work to the laborers. While the H-2A program is intended to help farms bring in foreign labor when “there are not sufficient able, willing, and qualified U.S. workers available,” it is an option that can incur significant costs and can be prohibitively expensive for small business owners and grape growers.

There are, of course, immigrants who are in New York State illegally. A 2014 study by the Center for Migration Studies estimated that there were 817,000 unauthorized immigrants in our state at that time. Interestingly, this same study also estimated that 64 percent of those people were unauthorized because they had overstayed their original visas, not because they had illegally entered our country in some way.

Research from the Pew Research Center estimates that unauthorized immigrants tend to be long-term residents, having been in the United States for 10 years or more. This evidence suggests that most unauthorized immigrants currently in New York State - and the nation - arrived legally and then ended up staying to put down roots.

It’s these people who will now feel the impact of the newly expanded immigration enforcement policies coming from Washington D.C.

President Trump has made it clear, both as a candidate and since taking office, that he wants to reduce the number of legal immigrants entering our country, as well as reduce the number of illegal immigrants already here. The executive order he issued on Jan. 25, as reflected in later memos from Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, established a far broader range of enforcement priorities than those under the Obama administration. Not only will Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents now be going after unauthorized immigrants with criminal records, they are also directed to prioritize individuals who have been charged with a crime but not yet convicted; who have committed acts for which they could be charged as criminals; and who “in the judgment of an immigration officer, otherwise pose a risk to public safety or national security.”

In theory, legal immigrant workers - and the wineries that employ them - should have nothing to worry about under this expanded enforcement. But in reality, the situation is not so simple.

What if family members of legal workers have overstayed their visas? What if legal immigrants who work the local vineyards are incidentally caught up in enforcement actions? What if these workers simply decide to look for work elsewhere as a result of increased enforcement, or out of the fear for what the new enforcement policies could mean for them and their loved ones? What if future policies and regulations established by the Trump administration prevent legal workers from coming here in the first place?

Who would tend the vines and pick the grapes?

This is exactly why Hunt and other local winery owners want to see a reformed guest worker program put in place as soon as possible. They want a simple system that allows foreign workers to come to available jobs and then go back to their home countries with the assurance that returning the next season would be easy, something the current system doesn’t do. They would like a system where people don’t feel the need to overstay their visas in order to keep their jobs in our region.

Of course, this begs the question: Why do local vineyards need foreign workers in the first place? “In over 25 years, I’ve only had three applications from non-immigrant people for vineyard work,” says Scott Osborn, president and co-owner of Fox Run Vineyards in Penn Yan. He currently employs two full-time immigrant workers and has just hired a third. He will arrange for part-time labor in the vineyards as needed.

“It is very challenging to find local workers at the time of year and in the amount we need,” says Gene Pierce, founder and owner of Glenora Wine Cellars in Dundee.

Glenora employs anywhere from five to 10 immigrants in the vineyards on a part-time basis, depending on the task and season.

Eileen Farnan, co-owner and co-founder of Barrington Cellars and Buzzard Crest Vineyards in Barrington, says she and her husband used to hire high school students and house wives through the 1980s. But eventually, this source of labor stopped showing up. “That left us all hanging out to dry, without help. That’s how it all began. We had no choice. The grapes demand quite a bit of hand labor.”

“I don’t doubt that the local community could do these jobs,” says Pierce. “Within a day or two, we can teach someone to prune.”

“A high school kid can learn it,” said Hunt, who employs up to eight part-time vineyard workers at any given time. He sees trimming as a highly-skilled job but says it would take only half a day to teach someone how to tie grapes well. “But it takes a desire to do a good job,” he adds.

Farnan says in her experience that anyone who has the right mindset and motivation can be taught to do vineyard work. “In fact,” she says, “you’re better off teaching them because they’ll do it the way you want it done.”

Hunt says the minimum he currently pays the immigrants who work in the vineyards is $11.50 an hour; with piecework - getting paid per vine - they earn up to $20 an hour. But he says a person has to work fast to get that kind of pay.

Pierce says the people working in his vineyards earn $800 to $1,000 per week with piecework. But they start at 7 a.m. and work until it’s dark.

Congressman Reed briefly addressed this issue at the end of his recent town hall meeting in Pulteney on March 11. He said having picked grapes as a boy and with the current pay rate being what it is, he cannot wrap his head around why vineyard owners are unable to find local people to work the vines.

Hunt was at the town hall. He shared his concerns about the need to reform the guest worker system to ensure vineyards can find the labor they need to bring in the grapes. Reed, in his response, expressed what he said is an unpopular position for a Republican: “We owe it to our immigrants, we owe it to the folks who are here illegally to fix this problem. And I want to work with anybody who wants to come up with a solution in regards to that.”

Reed said he sees immigration reform as something to work on in 2018, after addressing healthcare reform and tax reform.

But that may not be soon enough for local wineries. What would happen if they were unable to find workers - either immigrant or local - this year?

“I honestly don’t know what we would do,” says Pierce. He might have to get involved with hiring workers through the H-2A program but says that it’s not an easy thing to do.

“We would have to do one of two things,” says Farnan. “Give up farming or we would have to substantially cut down on our acreage of grapes.”

“I have no idea how I would get those vines pruned and tied and trained in the summer,” says Hunt. “I might just tear out the vines and do something else.”

And what sort of impact would that have on our local economy?