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Housing harvest for migrant workers

By Jason Walsh Index-Tribune News Editor
MIGUEL CAMPOS INSTALLS stairs and railings on mobile housing units that will be used at the migrant workers' camp in Agua Caliente.
Photo by Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune

08.19.05 - Sometimes a pillow to rest one's head upon at night makes all the difference.

At least that's one theory behind the need for the two migrant farmworkers' camps being set up this month by Vineyard Workers Services in preparation for the coming grape harvest.

The camps - La Posada ("The Inn") on Eighth Street East, and La Posadita ("The Little Inn") in Agua Caliente - will be set up to house 30 and 26 workers, respectively, and provide them with basic sleeping and bathroom facilities.

This marks the fourth year the Eighth Street East camp will be in operation and the third year for Agua Caliente. Prior to the creation of the camps, dozens of migrant workers were forced to squeeze into overcrowded and overpriced housing situations or, worse, live out of their cars or face the elements by camping outdoors.

"The average guy who stayed in the camps the first year we had them had been coming to work here for 10 years and had been sleeping in their cars or alongside Sonoma Creek," said Jim Ferris, director of Vineyard Workers Services. "The importance of the camps is that they give dignity back to the workers."

The camps consist of modular living units designed to accommodate four workers each, plus on-site shower, bathroom and dining

facilities. Additionally, Vineyard Workers Services arranges for mobile medical and dental clinics to visit the camps, as well as clinics on nutrition and pesticides.

Farmworkers will pay $8 a day to stay at the camps.

Peter Haywood, former president of the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, calls the need for clean places for workers to eat and sleep "essential."

"In the past a lot of workers have had to double up in rental housing or motels, and the cost was not only much higher but the conditions were way overcrowded," said Haywood, who spearheaded the campaign to create the camps. "And that's just not right."

Vineyard Workers Services expects the camps to be open by Aug. 27. Ferris said electrical and plumbing work is currently under way, and county and state inspections need to be completed before workers can be housed.

A typical harvest will keep the workers busy for about eight weeks, said Ferris.

The camps are funded through donations, the majority of which come from the Vintners and Growers Alliance's annual Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction, which takes place this year on Sept. 4 at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.

Alliance director Jonnie McCormick said the auction brought in about $50,000 for Vineyard Workers Services last year and predicts similar numbers for September's event.

"We have to be supportive of the Vineyard Workers Services and the camps are our main thrust," McCormick said. "These workers are simply an asset to our industry."

While estimates place the number of farmworkers who come to the Valley for harvest at anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500, grower Ned Hill said fewer and fewer tend to be as desperate for housing as they were decades ago - as the industry has grown to require more year-round labor.

"Most of the workers are permanent employees here and live in the area," said Hill, operations manager for Durell and Parmelee-Hill vineyards. "Certainly there is still an influx during harvest. But there isn't the influx that there used to be."