At KG Vineyard Management, a rapidly growing Lodi enterprise, managing people is as much a priority as monitoring grapevines. Partners Ben Kolber and Kris Gutierrez have guided many vineyard clients to sustainable certification, but it is their progressive employee practices and community engagement that earned the company this year’s Green Medal Community Award. Madelyn Ripken Kolber, the company’s sustainability director, shares some ways the firm fosters efficiency and cohesion as it grows.
A lot of your employees are Pakistani and non-English speaking. How did that come about and how have you accommodated their needs?
There is a big Pakistani community in Lodi. Our first employee, who is now our lead manager, is Pakistani and he helped us grow by hiring other employees from the community as we needed labor. It has been a good fit. Probably 85 to 90 percent of the crew is Pakistani, so we have translated all company handbooks and policies into Urdu, and we have created our own training videos in Urdu. A translator is always present during employee trainings, and we have half-day Fridays to accommodate religious practices.
Why produce your own training videos?
We use our own employees to train our staff. Our teams love the opportunity to be on camera and to share something they are expert at. They know the ins and outs of the equipment, and they know what’s important. They’ll talk about how to be safe on a tractor; or how to avoid heat illness; or the proper way to mix materials. It gives them a sense of accomplishment to share that knowledge. And employees pay more attention when the videos are filmed in a place they’re familiar with and with people they know. At our harvest party, we do a slide show of the past year’s trainings.
What’s that harvest party like?
We serve traditional Pakistani food—either prepared by employees and their families (we reimburse them) or catered by a local halal restaurant. We celebrate the safe harvest with awards for hard work, dedication, integrity and passion. It’s a great way to recognize individual employees’ successes.
Have you come to appreciate Pakistani food?
Pakistani food is delicious if you can take the heat! I love the spicy sauces and curries with a big piece of roti, which is like naan. Ben's favorite time is when Ramadan falls during harvest. At sundown, everything halts for a vineyard feast of Pakistani dishes shared among the group: chickpeas in curry, vegetable samosas, delicious meat kebabs with roti. And sweet hot tea throughout the evening.
In a world with so much cultural conflict, do you feel like workplaces can help bridge some of these divides?
We are all so busy with our tasks that we have put political, racial and cultural differences aside. We honor our differences and depend on each other to build a comfortable work environment.
According to your website, improving employee communication is an objective. How have you tackled that?
We use a group-texting app to keep our team informed about activities and operations in real time. The office always knows where the crew is and what they are doing. We can track billing and complete timecards accurately and more efficiently. And we have a faster response in an emergency. Many of the staff are not literate in English and having them do things on paper was problematic Now foremen and managers are able to make updates easily and quickly on their phone. It’s working great for us.
Congrats on the Community Award. In what ways would you say you’re a good member of the Lodi community?
We are proud farmers. We want our youth to be knowledgeable about agriculture and its opportunities. We want them to be inspired by agriculture's rich history and by our innovation. For the NorCal Science Festival, we deliver our harvester to the festival site so visitors can see the machine that picks grapes and how it works. We’ll invite families to the farm for harvester rides and lend our trailer so 4H kids can get their hogs to the fair. Sometimes I’ll lead a knot-tying class for kids after school. Our kids should dream about being winegrowers one day! Let's give them the spark and the tools to follow in our footsteps.
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