Wildfire Smoke Harming Wine Crops and Essential Workers

As wildfire smoke threatens to damage the 2020 Willamette Valley wine harvest, farmworkers around the state face fire risks with no clear state protections.  

With many still working in hazardous air, Oregon’s wildfires are raising questions about treatment of farmworkers. Reyna Lopez, the executive director of Oregon’s Latinx farmworker union, Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste, spoke to OPB about the situation.  

Lopez said union members might not have received information on the conditions in their language, and more are not able to access it because of the digital divide. PCUN received calls and messages from workers asking about protocol for their jobs and if evacuation centers would accept those with mixed immigration statuses. People also expressed concern over that they needed to work the next day and didn’t know if their protection was enough.  

PCUN has been giving out KN95 masks to protect workers, but there is debate as to whether to prioritize work or safety. Workers in “Be Ready” evacuation zones are conflicted over getting a bigger paycheck or being ready to leave at any time.   

California has safety measures for workers when the air quality index is over 150, but Oregon does not. Lopez says PCU contacted their Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration director for a standard or policy about worker safety, but Oregon OSHA responded only with recommendations. 

Lopez says both workers and farmers are being faced with a tough choice. Workers must choose between going to work and earning money or being safe, and farmers must choose between giving their workers time off or saving their crop.  

I’m feeling for everyone who is out there right now because we know that something needs to be done, and we need to come together to figure out what that solution is, Lopez said.  

 Rollin Soles, a winemaker and co-owner of Roco Winery in Newberg said in an interview with Statesman Journal that the smoke is could cause quite an issue with wine grape quality. When exposed to smoky air for a period of time, wine grapes can absorb the smell of smoke which then transfers into the wine.  

This is called a “smoke taint” and is considered a flaw. In 2018, growers in in Oregon’s Rogue Valley had an order of 2,000 tons of grapes, valued at around 4 million dollars, canceled for alleged smoke taint. 

Faced with the prospect of losing money, winemakers are sending their grapes to labs for smoke impact testing. However, Willamette Valley Vineyard’s Director Christine Clair said perspective is key. While the skies are orange and smoky, Clair says “It looks really bad, but what we’re seeing in the vineyard doesn’t look that bad yet.” 

Clair added that the wildfires are helping to expand the knowledge around decreasing the impact of smoke on wine grapes, and winemakers felt they had tools to work with.  

Lopez does not feel similarly.  

“From the worker’s perspective, missing one day of work will affect the family in a big way,” she said. “People are making between $24,000 to $25,000 a year, but also people’s health is very important, and folks are not just seeing what outside looks like, but they’re literally feeling the effects in their bodies. 

Lopez adds that the Oregon Worker Relief Fund, emergency relief for essential workers not covered by federal funds due to mixed immigration status, will be crucial for workers already struggling due to the pandemic.  

By Hannah Ramsey