The New Holland Model VL660 Grape harvester which is used at Evergreen Vineyards in McMinnville. The harvester is a powerful and controversial symbol as Oregon and the nation struggle with the economic realities of immigration. As public pressure drives a border crackdown and increased enforcement, farmers nationwide face labor shortages as high as 30 to 50 percent during harvest. - AP

Grape harvester controversial symbol

SALEM — Surrounded by shiny new tractors, Carl Capps spends most days talking about horsepower, hydraulics and transmissions. In the past he paid little attention to anti- and pro-immigrant activists marching at the state Capitol.

Then the immigration debate came to him last fall, after he sold a quarter-million-dollar machine that harvests wine grapes — the first in the Willamette Valley.

The New Holland Braud grape harvester can do the work of 40 handpickers in a fraction of the time.

Suddenly, vineyard owners were calling Capps to schedule demonstrations, saying they couldn't cope with worsening worker shortages — or immigration raids. Their concerns were heightened after a U.S. Senate immigration bill that would have offered legal status for up to 900,000 undocumented agricultural workers failed, and immigration officers detained nearly 200 workers at a Portland produce processing plant.

Oregonians for Immigration Reform, a restrictionist group, touted the European machine as a beacon of a future without illegal labor.

"As soon as word about this got out, the immigration issue was the first thing that came up," Capps said. "The bloggers are all over it. They're saying, 'Finally, see? We told you that you could get by without all this immigration.'"

The harvester is a powerful and controversial symbol as Oregon and the nation struggle with the economic realities of immigration. As public pressure drives a border crackdown and increased enforcement, farmers nationwide face labor shortages as high as 30 percent to 50 percent during harvest. Further complicating matters, large numbers of former migrant laborers have switched to construction jobs for the higher pay and year-round stability.

The high-tech machine — which uses "shaker rod" technology to coax grapes off the vine into molded silicon rubber collection baskets — may herald a future of all-mechanized agriculture.

"Oregon doesn't have the scale or the research to make an immediate leap," said Brent Searle, special assistant to the director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture. "But in farming, it's always taken a crisis to make big changes.

"Necessity is the mother of invention."

Often when Jim Ludwick, president of Oregonians for Immigration Reform, tried to change people's minds about illegal immigration, they'd come back with the need for labor "that no one else wants to do."

"They'd always want to talk about farmworkers," Ludwick said.

He'd tell them about California farmers who had mechanized lettuce harvesting and were using citrus pickers with infrared sensors to detect ripe fruit. "They didn't buy it. There's an aura about farming, and they like to think there are farmworkers out there."

Then last fall, he read in a local farming newspaper about the New Holland Braud harvester at Evergreen Vineyards in McMinnville. The aviation giant, which has vineyards adjacent to its aviation museum — and a Spruce Goose wine label that honors its star attraction — bought the machine for the 2006 harvest.

It picked 3.5 tons of pinot noir grapes in 20 minutes with three workers, the Capital Press article said. Usually that would have taken 34 workers an hour.

Finally, Ludwick had an Oregon example to make his case. He began to tout the New Holland harvester in speeches, as well as to state legislators, members of Congress and radio talk show hosts.

"This is what modern societies do," he said. "They mechanize and wean themselves off cheap stoop labor."

Ludwick said mechanized tomato-harvesting took off only after the end of the 1960s Bracero guest-worker program ended a steady supply of Mexican workers.

The only problem with Ludwick's pitch? Evergreen Vineyards won't touch the immigration debate with a 10-foot shaking rod.

"We are not going to latch onto any political connection whatsoever," said Mike Wilhoit, a vice president of the McMinnville vineyard owned by the international aviation mega-company. "We bought this machine for the quality of the grapes."

Wilhoit said Evergreen's primary motivation was to pick grapes at night, when they are cool and will not ferment. Because of the machine's speed, grapes spend little time sitting in bins before they're whisked off to refrigeration.

"They never get warm once," he said.

Evergreen still relies on handpicking, he said. "We love our workers, no matter what country they come from."

Though many California vineyards have entire fleets of harvesters, it's unlikely Oregon will follow suit.

Unlike California's hundreds of acres of flat vineyards, Oregon vineyards tend to be small operations on rolling hillsides, said Dick Shea, owner of Shea Vineyards in Yamhill County. Few can afford a six-figure piece of equipment, and the large, tall machines have typically not been stable on hills. Evergreen is more like a California vineyard, large and on a flat valley floor.

If machines were feasible and could produce the same quality of wine, Shea said, "I think everybody would prefer not to be worried about seasonal laborers. Inevitably there is not as much as you want, and it seems harder every year."

Shea is also skeptical that a machine can handle a high-end wine grape delicately enough to measure up to hand labor. Even if a machine could pick that well, other jobs — particularly leaf removal to prevent mildew and expose grapes to more sunlight — still require hand labor.

Capps said New Holland has developed attachments for those tasks.

The demonstrations have converted a lot of skeptics. Many start with vintners standing with crossed arms, determined not to let a machine-picked grape touch their fermenting vats, he said.

"Give me a break," Capps said. "I defy anyone to distinguish handpicked grapes from the ones picked by these machines."

For all agriculture that relies on hand labor, customer perception plays a big role, said Ken Bailey, a cherry farmer in The Dalles and vice chairman of the Oregon Department of Agriculture Board.

For example, mechanically harvested cherries require pretreating with a chemical that loosens the fruit, followed by a machine that shakes it off.

"What results is a stemless cherry. It does not necessarily affect the quality of the cherry," Bailey said. "But will customers be willing to pay as much if it was sprayed with this chemical and has no stem?"

How much the stem on a cherry, the cachet of hand-picked pinot noir or other intangibles affect the consumer experience — and hence demand — remain to be seen.

"If you change your harvesting, you're going to change your product. That's too big a risk for a lot of farmers to take right now," Bailey said.

"But if there's no labor, you'll have to switch."


On the Net:

New Holland Braud grape harvester:

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Oregonians for Immigration Reform:

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