Quebec vineyards need help gathering grapes for the harvest amid worker shortage
MONTREAL -- As the harvest begins, many Quebec vineyards are offering the population the chance to come and lend a hand to pick grapes between mid-September and Thanksgiving, an intense period, which represents the culmination of the work of a whole year.
"We really need help," said Le Bourg des Cedres vineyard owner Benoit Pilon, in Monteregie.
He's looking for about 20 people a day for the next four weekends.
It is an "exchange of good services" where the volunteers live the experience of harvesting for a day.
"There are those who say: 'I paid to go to France to do it, I can do it at home for free," said Pilon.
In the evening, he offers pickers a meal, wine, and cheese.
"It's a way of thanking them," he said.
The formula, which he is repeating for a fifth year, suits Pilon since "volunteers work better than committed people," he said, although they are sometimes slower carrying out their task.
For example, they are careful not to put rotten leaves or bunches in the boilers, which avoids the need to sort afterwards.
In years past, he set up volunteer winemakers close enough to each other in rows and face-to-face so that they could chat and laugh among themselves as they worked. Distancing requires, however, that only members of the same family will work together this year.
At the Domaine du Fleuve vineyard in Varennes, general manager Louis Thomas also wishes to "do business with the population if they want to come and help us."
A few days before the start of the harvest, he still does not know whether he will have enough workers from employment agencies to meet his needs. Several volunteers have already come forward, however, so he does not believe he will have manpower problems this season. This year, he's looking for a dozen a day.
"We talk to them about wine, we explain to them what we do, but there is still a portion of work," said Thomas. "Besides, it starts early. People should be here around 7:30 or 8 a.m. Everyone is in good shape in the morning. We don't have any stiffness yet."
A large proportion of the vineyards recruit volunteers for the harvest, according to Sebastien Daoust of the Wine Council of Quebec.
According to Daoust, they do it to meet demand and not because they fundamentally need it.
"I don't think any winemaker comes out with the idea that their business model will be based on volunteerism," he said. "Generally, in the industry, it's like any other year right now where we have a lot of people volunteering... We talk a lot among winegrowers, and if there are winegrowers who are in trouble, we would have heard about it."
Many vineyards rely mainly on temporary workers who will work for several weeks during the harvest period, but this year during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are labour issues.
Take Domaine de Lavoie, in Rougemont, one of the largest vineyards in the province.
Usually, co-owner Francis-Hugues Lavoie uses the services of the Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA) to hire workers from Quebec for the harvest, but this year it's more complicated.
"As there are many fruit and vegetable farms that have failed to have their foreign workers come from Guatemala and Mexico during the summer to harvest the harvest, they have already drawn from the bank of names of the UPA," noted Mr. Lavoie. "So there the bank is running dry."
He plans to start the harvest next week.
"Of course we need people," he said.
Those who want to work on his field will be warned: the work is physically demanding.
"It's a job that is from morning to night,” he said. "We are squatting. We are on our knees or sitting on a boiler and we cut grapes all day. We are on all fours. It's not as fancy as it sounds."
During the Thanksgiving long weekend, he will welcome volunteers as is his custom.
At Orpailleur vineyard, located in Dunham in the Eastern Townships, owner Charles-Henri De Coussergues is knocking on wood for luck.
He finished training his team in July - only Quebecers, as it has been for 35 years. It's going so well that he even turned down workers this year.
He attributes his success in recruiting to the fact that he pays according to performance, that he houses his workers and that the atmosphere is pleasant, even if the work is quite hard.
For years, the winemaker has organized harvest weekends with volunteers. Now he says he can no longer "afford (to have) people who come or who do not come, or who after two hours have back pain."
De Coussergues is already "in the juice," having started the harvest on Sept. 7. The quality is there thanks to the hot and dry weather of the last months. So far, the weather has been fine, which makes for ideal days for harvesting.
-- this report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2020.