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Managing vineyard labor: advice from an expert.

Say you are in charge of a sizeable vineyard operation, and you've cultivated your staff as carefully as your vines. You hire the best workers you can find, treat them fairly, and they are happy enough to stay with you year after year. In the last few months, though, trouble's been brewing between your two most expert mechanics. Suddenly, for reasons unclear to you, they seem to loath each other, and have declared in no uncertain terms that they cannot continue to work together. You don't want to lose either, but misreading or mishandling this volatile situation could cause you to lose them both.

Would you know what to do to preserve your valuable workforce and harmony at the work site? Gregory Encina Billikopf would. A labor management farm advisor for UC Davis, and author of the newly revised book Labor Management In Agriculture: Cultivating Personnel Productivity, Billikopf has dealt with that specific case, and countless other management dilemmas in a career devoted to helping farm management and labor get along successfully. The second edition of his book (first published by UC in 1994, it quickly sold out its 2,000 pressrun), provides practical guidelines for every aspect of the labor/management relationship, from hiring to training to evaluation, promotion, compensation and termination. It contains detailed strategies and concrete examples, all in an easy-to-read, even entertaining form.

Although the book covers all the diverse crops and livestock that comprise California's agricultural production, the techniques and wisdom presented in Labor Management In Agriculture can easily be translated to growing enterprises anywhere, and indeed, Billikopf has lectured and consulted all over the world. Despite its universal utility, the book is particularly apropos for grapegrowers. That's because Billikopf himself has deep roots in viticulture, having grown up in Chilean vineyards owned by his family for generations.

"As a child," recalls Billikopf (aka Gregorio Billikopf Encina in his native culture), "I spent a lot of time in the vineyards. My interest in labor issues developed in the vineyard, when I went out and talked, and listened, to the farmworkers, went out and pruned with them." Although he was the offspring of the owners, Billikopf says, "I found myself in the middle, listening to both sides. As a youth, I didn't realize it, but in years of doing research in the field, I learned that one side cannot win without the other, in the long run."

That realization combined with his youthful empathy for the farmworkers to become Billikopf's lifelong calling. At 16, he immigrated with his family to the United States, where he studied viticulture and pomology at UC Davis. He found himself working in migrant education, with the children of farmworkers, and eventually became an agricultural training specialist, developing a model used statewide to educate immigrant farmworkers during downtime, while on unemployment, to increase their skills and become year-round employees. He's held his current position as North San Joaquin Valley farm advisor for UC since 1981.

Model Management

Remember those two mechanics who wouldn't speak to each other? A grapegrower brought that seemingly intractable situation to Billikopf, and his successfully negotiated solution led to the development, over the next 15 years, of a new approach to mediation that is now used not only in agriculture but in situations such as women's shelters.

Despite his meticulous research and proven results, Billikopf's methods are not always easily accepted, even by those who might most benefit from them. The techniques, he says, "All came from an invitation to mediate between those two employees. Even human resources people will say, 'I don't know why you're doing this. I'd tell 'em to solve it between themselves in a day or I'll fire you both!' This doesn't give people real skills," Billikopf says. "The approach I use is time consuming. You must listen to each party separately, really listen. Both are ready to quit. Both are desperate. For many employers, it is worth it to save two valuable workers."

One major difference in Billikopf's method: "Most mediators bring both parties together, but then people can say something hurtful. It's not helpful. I listen to both, individually. When each person is through talking, I work to help both present their sides effectively (to each other)." And, he adds, "The employer is never a part of it. Some issues are just so embarrassing. People would try and score a point or two. I'm not going to say who's right or wrong. When they understand that I'm there to help them, the light goes on.

"I also use negotiating skills in a new approach for performance appraisal that everyone loves," Billikopf says. He has taught and applied this approach in Africa, Russia, Canada, Columbia, even his native Chile. "People are not the same in abilities, but they have the same sort of conflicts everywhere I go. There are interesting cultural differences, but people are the same."

And yet, he notes, people are most certainly not all the same in their abilities. "All my research has demonstrated that, out of say, 15-20 employees, the best will perform four to eight times better than the poorest, on the average. This means that if we use selection as a management tool, we can use more of those (more able) people, reducing operational and management costs. We can get things done better and cheaper." This is best done, Billikopf believes, by including practical testing in the hiring process. If you ask someone if he can drive a tractor, chances are he'll tell you "yes." But, "If you ask him to back up the tractor with a gondola, you can tell within five minutes or less if he can really do it. Instead of an interview, use testing," he suggests.

Pay For The Best

This observation has led him to conclude that, in many agricultural jobs, piecework payment brings better results than hourly wages. "The average grapegrower can save 40% per acre by paying by piece instead of by-the-hour," he says. Worried about quality? "Another study showed that the quality of the job was not tied to by-the-piece or by-the-hour wages, but the quality of the supervisor," Billikopf asserts.

"Here's an important thing. Many growers fall into this trap. They see a worker earning $15-22 an hour, and they panic. In effect, this punishes the pieceworkers. You need to take it back a step. How much does it cost to prune this acre? Why do you care if you have some workers going home with their pockets full, if you are saving money?" he asks.

A typical grower, seeing his piecework laborers taking home astronomical wages, might say, "I'm thinking of reducing payment per vine." Billikopf's response: "I say, you're punishing the worker. Don't worry about how much the worker is making. If he's making a lot of money, it's a good thing. A well-designed incentive program is a benefit. If you cut back, you'll lose the better half of your workers, and the half that stays will never trust you again."

Billikopf related the story of a grower who complained a few years ago about a piecework laborer earning $45 an hour. At that time, California minimum wage was about $6. "Now, do the math," he says. "If your best worker produces four to eight times as much as the poorest, and the poorest worker is making $6, isn't that $45 fair? I've heard story after story of workers being punished for being too productive. Adding tasks, lowering wages, there are 101 ways to punish workers who do well."

His years of proselytizing have won Billikopf many grateful adherents to his methods. "I now have success stories," he says. "One guy told me, 'I've got a guy making five times minimum wage.' I was so happy for him. American farmers worry about labor costs, how to compete against imports. The farmer who understands, knows that he could save 40% per acre with a well-structured incentive plan. He could save more, if doing it correctly, by allowing workers to earn what they want, with maybe one-fourth the amount of labor."

Changing Times

In his decades of observation and participation in California's agricultural industry, Billikopf has seen some changes. "The rest of the U.S. has discovered California's little secret--the Mexican farmworker." This powerful, if under-acknowledged force, is finding itself welcome in unexpected places. During Billikopf's travels, he says, "It's one of the biggest topics. In Kentucky, New York, they want advice on hiring hispanic labor."

The best of that labor is likely to stay in California's vineyards, though, because, as Billikopf notes, "Vineyards are particularly fortunate that they have the ability to keep their employees most of the year. With peaches, berries, other crops, you might have one or two employees most of the year, then several thousand for the harvest." The many year-round tasks necessary to cultivate a vineyard are, he notes, very labor intensive.

Perhaps because of his childhood experiences, Billikopf expresses admiration for those who can skillfully prune a grapevine. "With a regular tree, you prune it back so it doesn't work so hard. In grapevines, it's an art .... It's such a quality thing, to prune a grapevine. A thinking job. Among the highest skilled jobs in agriculture."

Another change Billikopf has noted is, he states firmly, "Labor laws are totally out of hand. When I came to work for UC in '81, labor laws benefited both employer and employee. Many laws help employers become better employers, make employees more satisfied.

"But, they keep adding new laws and regulations without any concern for the effect .... Basically, I would say the state of the labor law situation is so dark, I believe it is impossible for a grapegrower to comply with all the labor laws that exist. I suspect that every single employer is operating outside the law, because the laws are so out of touch with reality. My suggestion is that there be an agreement in California, and other similar areas, that there be 10 or 15 things we can all agree to focus on .... When your labor laws are so many that you need a specialist for every law, neither labor nor management is served."

While his negotiating expertise and ability to mediate might suggest that Billikopf could offer some helpful consultation to lawmakers, he is content to continue on his current path. "I love my job," he states. "It's the best job I've ever had. I love working for UC, love the growers, love working in the field." He does have other projects on the drawing board. He's teaching an electronic course on labor management, and writing another book on mediation, aimed at those in the helping professions.

This current book, Labor Management in Agriculture: Cultivating Personnel Productivity, is a gem. It's recommended reading for any manager, and for that matter, any employee, and is available in both English and Spanish editions, hard-bound, including more than 150 photos, for a mere $12.50. It also can be downloaded free of charge, by individual chapter or in its entirety. To order or to download, visit the Web site tinyurl.com/kjrfor or e-mail aglabor@ucdavis.edu. Gregory Billikopf can be reached at (209) 525-6800 or gebillikopf@ucdavis.edu.
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Author:Firstenfeld, Jane
Publication:Wines & Vines
Date:Dec 1, 2003
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