Good Fruit Grower

May 15

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PHOTO BY MELISSA HANSEN Servando Rodriguez manages the production of 400 acres of apples and cherries and 450 acres of wine grapes for Sagemoor Farms. Sagemoor sells grapes to more than 60 wineries, and many have their own crop load and harvest preferences. Rodriguez has developed long-term relationships with winemakers like Marty Clubb of L'Ecole Cellars, Barnard Griffin Winery's Rob Griffin, and the late David Lake of Columbia Winery. "I listen to what the winemakers tell me they want, and then I tell them what I think we can do," Rodriguez said in describing his relationships with winemakers. "I try hard to deliver what they want, and most of the time, we do." In February, industry peers recognized his extraordinary attention to grape growing, honoring him with the Grower of the Year Award of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers. Griffin presented the award. "I had to learn everything from scratch." Rare individual General manager Kent Waliser credits Rodriguez for creating a good work environ—Servando Rodriguez ment that keeps workers loyal. "His ability to manage people is rare," he said, adding that if Rodriguez had been able to go to college, he could have had an upper management position, like a human resources director. "Servando can negotiate like a used car salesman to get the best of any deal," Waliser said, adding that to find someone like Rodriguez whom the workers trust is rare. "He can also use his skills to diplomatically navigate difficult situations with people so they feel good about the outcome. His work ethic serves as an example and provides leadership to all, and no one wants to let him down." When workers come looking for a job and Sagemoor has none, Rodriguez refers them to neighboring farms, a win-win situation for all. He's also known to lend his own money to workers short of cash for gas or food. "Ninety-nine percent of the time I get my money back," he said. But he told of one instance when a couple left for a job in Wenatchee without repaying $60. He wrote it off to goodwill, but six weeks later, the couple stopped on their way south to repay the money. • AGING workforce PHOTO COURTESY OF SAGEMOOR FARMS S agemoor Farms hasn't been short of labor the last few years like other tree fruit growers have, likely because of its proximity to the 260,000 residents of Washington's Tri-Cities. But Servano Rodriguez sees a change in today's workforce that troubles him. "We're not replacing the aging workers," said the production manager at Sagemoor, a diversified farming partnership that produces apples, cherries, and grapes. It takes two young workers to replace one old, Rodriguez says. "The young ones don't have the same work ethic as the older generation—they don't work as hard and are more likely to quit before the job is done." With the graying of the agricultural work force, the labor shortage is likely to get worse as fewer young workers arrive from Mexico and fewer attempt to cross the border because of tighter immigration enforcement and drugcartel violence along the border. It's also been reported that with a rebounding economy, Mexican farmers are facing their own labor shortage. On a positive note, tree fruit architecture has changed to allow more work to be done from the ground and less from ladders, broadening the potential labor pool and encouraging more female workers, he said. "Women are more steady and consistent in their pruning, thinning, and tree training. With smaller trees, women don't have to move ladders around and can do most tree tasks from the ground." Sagemoor employs about 25 full-time workers for the Pasco operation and has a core group of 75 apple and grape workers employed most of the year. Average length of employee service for full-time employees is around 20 years, Rodriguez said; that is a testimony to a good work environment. Some of their tractor operators have been there for 30 years. —M. Hansen GOOD FRUIT GROWER May 15, 2013 27

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