Ag at Large: Worker shortage renews interest in fit housing

Housing for immigrant farm workers remains a looming topic in the California agriculture industry. (Pixabay)

Farm workers were in tight supply during the spring and summer harvest season in California, causing some growers to revisit the issue of farm worker housing. It has been on the shelf for almost 40 years.

At least two major vegetable growers in the Salinas area have either built large housing units intended for workers or completed plans for such a village expected to be occupied by spring 2018.

A dozen reasons for the lighter population of workers have been offered, not the least of which is talk of tighter immigration practices. But stories circulating in the worker community below the border about a shortage of available and affordable housing have caused a significant impediment to the northward flow of workers.

Further, growers who take advantage of the government’s H-2A plan to import foreign workers are required to provide housing. That program has been much more popular in Washington than in California, with positive experiences. Refinement of it is in the works – expected to broaden its appeal – but housing will continue to be a requirement.

Growers and shippers of important vegetable products in the Salinas and Pajaro Valley were not alone in recognizing and meeting the housing need. A movement and study supported by all of the cities and communities in both areas is underway. It takes the matter of affordable worker housing to a new level of total community concern.

It began two years ago as a survey designed to determine real needs, possibly leading to an action plan. Oversight of the project has been granted by the California Institute for Rural Studies, which has led the way in scheduling interviews with knowledgeable housing experts and reviewing case studies of housing needs in the two-county, six-city area.

The currency of the effort was emphasized by a widespread personal survey of workers and others at an employment peak last summer. Planners were motivated by two major conditions.  They knew that developers want to build housing, but need hard data about potential occupancy. The other condition? The consuming recognition of the need for housing by organizations and businesses involved in the agricultural economy of the area.

Tanimura & Antle, a major grower and shipper of the predominant vegetable crops for which the area is known, hasn’t waited on survey results or actions it might precipitate. The company has built a 100-unit worker village it calls Spreckels Crossing, a few miles from Salinas. No mystery about the name; Spreckels made and sold sugar for many years from beets grown in the area, at its plant near the site of the new development.

Nunes Bros., another major vegetable crops producer in the area, has brought a large housing unit it calls Casa Boronda to the construction phase, and expects occupancy before the heavy worker demand of spring crop arrives. Interest in another unit has been expressed by a major artichoke producer in nearby Castroville.

Mayors, city councilmen and other community leaders are being identified as enthusiastic leaders in efforts that will result in more housing for farm workers in communities such as Watsonville, San Ardo, Blanco, Marina and Soledad, all to way Greenfield.

Housing projects already built, underway or on paper are impressive. Facilities that include a family open space and community features are attractive. Sunset Magazine, considered by many as the ultimate in recognizing and presenting high quality California living spaces, is published in Palo Alto, not far away. If it decides to publish a feature on Monterey County’s farm worker housing, we will know the standard has been reached.