North Bay Farmworker Housing

Sign of the times: Laborers Miguel Zepeda and Ruben Renteria stand in front of a sign spray-painted in protest over the lack of adequate farmworker housing in Napa and Sonoma counties. It reads: “If not now, when? If not here, where?”

Under the Sun

The North Bay’s other housing crisis– local farmworkers scramble to find shelter

By Jeremy A. Hay

THE FARMWORKER lives at the Llano Motel, in Room 8, a cramped 12-by-12-foot room with a threadbare maroon carpet and a price tag of $320 a week. The motel, on Santa Rosa Avenue, is a collection of narrow, mostly single-story buildings, painted a now dingy and faded pastel pink. Room 8 has been his home since December, when he traveled to Sonoma County from Fresno to work in the Dry Creek vineyards owned by Gallo of Sonoma, a division of the world’s largest wine producer, Gallo Vineyards.

Outside Room 8, dusk is settling on the motel’s parking lot. The farmworker leans against the hood of a gold 1970s model Olds Cutlass and smokes a cigarette. A native of Cuernavaca, Mexico, he is a handsome man who gives his age as 40; freshly showered and changed after his nine-hour workday, he wears black sweatpants, tasseled brown loafers, and a gray V-neck sweater over a white T-shirt. About an inch over six feet, he has skin the color of redwood, close-cropped curly black hair, a small black mustache, and a reserved smile that reveals one missing front tooth.

He declines to give his real name. “Maybe if you visit again,” he says, shrugging.

For the time being, I say, I’ll call him Manuel.

Over the past six months, Manuel has shared Room 8–its tiny kitchen, single shower and bathtub, six-foot-long chest of drawers, and two double beds–with as many as seven other men at a time, although only three others are staying there now. He and his roommates are part of a group of approximately 60 other farmworkers, all men, hired by a San Joaquin Valley­based labor contractor named Romulo Amaro and brought here to work in Gallo’s vineyards.

The California Institute for Rural Studies at UC Davis estimates that 12,864 farmworkers find work each year in Sonoma and Napa counties–slightly more than half of those in Sonoma County–pruning, tending, and harvesting a wine-grape crop that last year was valued at a combined $491 million, an increase of almost 40 percent since 1994. In both counties, the question of where farmworkers should live and who should provide that housing has bedeviled local citizens, farmworker and housing advocates, the wine industry, and politicians for years. It is a complex puzzle, the pieces of which are shaded by questions of social policy, affordable housing, labor rights, land-use planning, and cultural differences, to name just a few.

Farmworkers like Manuel, who are employed by labor contractors hired in turn by vineyard owners, make up the minority of farmworkers in both counties, although nobody knows exactly how large or small a minority. Between the United Farm Workers of America and the state’s Employment Development Department, or EDD, one can arrive at an estimate of 400 to 600 contractor-provided farmworkers who work in Sonoma County each year. In Napa County, meanwhile, Joelle Gallagher, executive director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers Association, says, “We suspect that a lot of the migrant labor is coming through contractors, but we don’t have anything like a firm figure.”

The association is currently surveying its members, hoping to arrive at a more definitive number.

The Price Is Right

THE FARMWORKERS’ accommodations at the Llano were arranged for them by their boss, Amaro, the contractor, and although the men are free to seek housing elsewhere, they usually don’t.

A few doors down from Manuel, 10 men, ranging in age from about 20 to perhaps 50, lie around in Room 13, watching a Spanish-language sitcom on a TV set bolted high on one wall. Three of the men recline on the one double bed, hands behind their heads, while two others sit at their feet. The youngest man in the room, listening to music over a pair of small earphones, lies on the floor in front of the single chest of drawers, on top of which is a mound of clothes several feet high and some groceries in a Food 4 Less shopping bag. Three more men lean or sit against the wall containing the room’s single window, which looks into the parking lot. The 10th occupant, a stocky man wearing gray shorts, a blue polo shirt, and flip-flops, sits in a chair against the wall opposite the door.

The men have lived here for the past two and half months.

I ask them about recent news reports that another Central Valley contractor, also hired by Gallo of Sonoma, was preventing men from leaving the Santa Rosa motel where they were being housed. As my companion, Nati Ramirez, an energetic 46-year-old grandmother who is service representative for the UFW’s Santa Rosa office, translates, the sound of 10 men scoffing fills the room.

“We could move out, but it’s cheap,” says the man in the flip-flops, who had let us into the room and quickly assumed the role of group spokesman.

He says this is the fifth year he’s come to Sonoma County to work in the Gallo fields. Each time, he says, he has stayed at one or another of the dozens of motels lining Santa Rosa Avenue. I ask him how the Llano compares to those other motels. For the most part, the other men pay only fleeting attention, seeming either disinterested in my presence, too absorbed by the television, or too tired to care.

“It has good and bad,” he replies. “The rooms have kitchens, but that makes it more expensive.”

In other motels, he says–for example, the Astro, near the Greyhound Depot–they had to use camping stoves to prepare their meals.

“Wouldn’t you like something different, to live in a better place?” I ask. “You work hard all day–it must be difficult to come home to such a small, crowded room.” As the question leaves my mouth, it feels, well, oddly pointless, stupid, somehow, its answer self-evident. I stumble in the asking, reaching for what I want to be tactful phrasing. What I really want to ask, after all, is: “How can you live like this? Doesn’t it make you hate things? How can you put up with it?”

The men in Room 13 respond with shrugs. “If it was a little cheaper for rent, sure, we’d like it,” is how Ramirez translates their answer.

Later, I ask Manuel the same question. He laughs.

“That would be ideal, sure, but as an immigrant worker I won’t be able to see that,” he says. “I have to save for my family, for my rent, to buy lunch.”

A place to hang their hat: Most farmworkers bring only what they can carry to their jobs.

Money Worth Returning For

MANUEL AND the other men Amaro imports here for Gallo earn $7.40 an hour and get paid weekly. Manuel says that out of each paycheck he sends between $100 and $160 home to his wife and three children, the eldest of whom is 18.

Last year, he says, his first in America, he and four or five other men rented a one-bedroom apartment on Corby Avenue. This year, though, rents are too high, and it is simply easier to live at the motel.

In Room 13, the stocky spokesman digs through a pile of clothes on the floor and produces a crumpled paycheck stub.

Dated June 23, the check is for the pay period ending June 18. It shows that for a 48-hour work week, his gross earnings were $355.20. After $29.66 in combined Social Security, Medicare, and State Disability Insurance taxes, he netted $325.54.

According to the EDD, $7.40 an hour is about average for farmworkers employed by vineyard labor contractors, and lower than the $9.06 average hourly wage for vineyard workers in the North Coast Agricultural Region, an eight-county area that includes Napa and Sonoma counties. Farmworkers here consistently say that Napa and Sonoma offer wages–even at $7.40 an hour–that are among the best in the state, with Napa vineyards sometimes paying a little more an hour than Sonoma’s.

Since February, Filiberto Estrada, a 36-year-old native of Ensenada, on the Baja Peninsula, has paid $10 a night to stay at the 60-bed Calistoga Farmworker Center, a pleasantly landscaped, quasi-publicly run labor camp in the northern Napa Valley. The camp once belonged to the food and beverage conglomerate Heublein Inc., which sold it to the Napa Valley Housing Authority in 1990. After dinner one night, I find Filiberto sitting alone on a long bench outside the camp’s bunkhouse dormitory. After thinking about it, he agrees to a conversation. He tells me that in the fields around Fresno, he worked for a contractor who paid him $5.75 an hour, before taxes. This year, he’s earning $7 an hour on a ranch in Crystal Springs, east of St. Helena, a job he learned about through his supervisor at the Crystal Springs ranch, a man who happened to also be a neighbor of his in Ensenada.

The extra few dollars, plus working conditions that are better than in other parts of California, are more than enough to bring men like Filiberto and Manuel coming back to Sonoma and Napa counties. “They treat us fine, like the workers and people we are,” says Manuel.

Although housing, in both counties, now ranks among the most expensive in the country, and the rental market, tight already, is probably tightest for men like them who are single, speak little or no English, and are frequently undocumented, it’s a burden they are willing to shoulder.

Unfair expectations: Becky Jenkins, who helps farm and manage 850 acres of vineyards, says grape growers shouldn’t be expected to provide worker housing.

‘It Made Me Angry, Sure–Why Not?’

“WE COME BECAUSE in Mexico we are in lots worse shape,” says Armando Ramirez. He is a 40-year-old farmworker who is a veteran in the vineyards of Sonoma Valley, a lush 17-mile-long swath of land that was once ruled by the Mexican government under Gen. Mariano Vallejo, and that Jack London, in 1916, dubbed the Valley of the Moon. Armando and his 22-year-old cousin, Luis, agreed to an interview at the office of Vineyard Worker Services, a nonprofit farmworker housing advocacy group headquartered in Boyes Hot Springs, near the town of Sonoma.

Over the course of an hourlong interview, Armando rarely moves. He sits very straight with his hands planted on his knees. He has come to Sonoma Valley in search of work for the past 20 years. This is just the third year Luis has spent here. Armando, who is from Michoacán, Mexico, says he usually stays for stretches of between 15 months and two years, before returning home for three or four months. Over the past 20 years, he’s lived in dormitory barns operated by the grape farmers he worked for and in rental apartments and houses scattered throughout the unincorporated communities of El Verano, Boyes Hot Springs, Agua Caliente, and Fetters Springs, a rough-edged but vibrant area known collectively as the Springs.

In recent years, he and Luis have also lived for stretches in open fields, between the same vine rows they pruned and tended during the day, and in abandoned cars.

“This last time I came, two years ago, I spent two weeks living on the street, trying to find places like old cars to sleep where I wouldn’t bother people,” Armando says through an interpreter, Miguel Gonzalez, a former farmworker who now works for Vineyard Worker Services. “We had jobs, and we looked for apartments, but they were too difficult to find.”

I am struck by how nonchalant or expressionless–I can’t decide–this middle-aged man sitting across the table from me seems, tugging every now and then at his white straw cowboy hat, recalling a time not so long ago when he “had no place to wash my face, shower, change clothes, even use the bathroom.”

I ask him how it felt, how he felt, and he snorts. “It made me angry, sure–why not?” he says.

At whom, I ask, the people you were working for? The government? This time, after Gonzalez translates my question, Armando and Luis smile at each other, and then they laugh.

Gonzalez tells me, “He says, ‘Basically, we get angry at all the rich people who you see driving by in their nice cars, when we don’t have anything, no place to stay.’ ”

We all share a brief laugh, and I keep taking notes.

Eventually, Armando says, he and Luis found separate one-bedroom apartments on Highway 12, for $600 and $825 respectively, sharing space with from six to 12 men at a time.

“There’s not enough places to live, so people drop in and stay and stay until they can find somewhere,” Armando says.

I ask the two men whether their families in Mexico–in Armando’s case, his wife and five children, in Luis’, his parents–know what happens when they arrive here. Do Luis’ parents, for instance, know he slept in abandoned cars while he worked in Sonoma Valley vineyards.

“Sure,” says Armando, with the type of shrug to which I’ve become accustomed, asking these kinds of questions.

Luis, though husky, is a young man with a full, soft face, and, next to his more weathered older cousin, he has seemed especially young, about the age of, say, a college freshman. But he answers my question with a confidence he’s not previously demonstrated, and as Gonzalez translates for him, I experience a distinct illusory sensation, that he is growing older before my eyes.

“My parents know. My father knows. He used to be a farmworker here,” says Luis. “Fifteen years here in Sonoma Valley.”

Changing Seasons

THE CALIFORNIA HUMAN Development Corp., or CHDC, is a Santa Rosa­based nonprofit agency active in farmworker issues for more than three decades. Candido Morales, with the agency for 30 years and now its communications officer, estimates that at the height of this year’s harvest, hundreds of migrant farmworkers may be living in Sonoma County’s fields, by its creeks and rivers, under its bridges, in cars.

Armando and Luis say they know of at least 15 fellow farmworkers currently living outside in and around the Springs area. And in the Napa Valley, Monsignor John Brenkle, pastor of the St. Helena Catholic Church and long a vocal advocate in the cause of more farmworker housing, says, “We’ve got about 20 to 25 guys sleeping on our porch right now. They’re all working. They just don’t have anywhere to stay.”

Where they should stay is a question that has grown more complicated as the grape-growing industry uses increasingly sophisticated techniques to produce better grapes and more productive vines, which in turn has made each acre of grapevines more labor-intensive. Those changes–as well as, in Sonoma County, the planting of almost 20,000 new acres of vineyard since 1994–have blurred the once clear definition between migrant and year-round farmworkers.

“There used to be just a big push at harvest to get it all done in a short amount of time. Then it became two seasons, the pruning, that starts in the winter, and the harvest,” says Bob Anderson, a deliberately-spoken man who heads up United Winegrowers, a Healdsburg-based industry group with about 100 member wineries and grape growers. “Now what’s happened is you go in from pruning to getting the crews out to get the vines up and growing, so basically the work season has spread throughout the growing time to a year-round process.

“The trend is to provide permanent, year-round jobs.”

The California Institute for Rural Studies defines farmworkers as being either migrant or seasonal: those who move around, following the crops, are migrant; those who stay in one place are seasonal. But as the different seasons have merged into a year-round workplace for farmworkers, traditional “true” migrant workers like the 10 men living in Room 13 at the Llano increasingly have become seasonal workers like Manuel and Filiberto, arriving for one season and staying on for the next and for the next.

“The plan is for my children not to have to work in the fields,” says Manuel, when I ask him how long he plans to stay in America. “I can’t make plans to go home.”

“It has changed from where you’re inviting people to come and stay a short time, and the pressure is to provide them with housing, to where you have more permanent workers,” says Anderson. “And those workers face the same issue that every other worker in Sonoma County faces in finding a place to live that they can afford.”

Well, yes, and, as Anderson will also acknowledge, not exactly.

Touched by an Angel: Angel Calderon of the Calistoga Farmworker Center, a model farmworker housing facility in Napa County.

‘An Unusual Industry’

I AM STANDING beside four six-foot-high locked gym lockers, near the doorway of a small room holding four single beds. Pieces of carpet, some red, some blue, cover parts of the gray-painted concrete slab floor. There is a microwave oven at the foot of one bed, a television set between two others, a Sony stereo stack beside another.

The room looks lived in, personalized, with a large, curtained window overlooking a flourishing vegetable garden. The beds are made with varying degrees of neatness, and no one set of sheets or blankets matches any of the others. A large stuffed pink elephant warms one of the pillows, and a hodgepodge of personal effects and supplies fills the long single shelves that are built into the wall over each bed. On one, a plaster figure of the Virgin Mary keeps watch. On another, a 12-ounce jar of Jif peanut butter sits next to a carton of chocolate SlimFast.

“We furnish them with everything but blankets and food,” says my guide, Warren Dutton, a plainspoken, somewhat gruff man who, with his wife, Gail, started the Graton-based Dutton Ranches in 1965. He now farms 1,000 acres of grapes and 150 acres of apple orchards, all in Sonoma County, and we are standing in a dormitory he built in Sebastopol, at a cost, he says, of $250,000, to house 38 farmworkers, many of whom have lived there for at least six months.

The dormitory is divided down the middle into two identical halves, each with 10 four-man bedrooms, a bathroom with four toilets and four shower stalls, and a large kitchen furnished with commercial-grade six-burner stoves, three sinks, and a massive refrigerator.

The men pay $2 a day to live here.

“And that doesn’t cover the costs,” Dutton says.

It’s a sore spot with him. In 1998, after Dutton built the dormitory but before anyone had moved in, a large group of neighbors asked the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to revoke the zoning permit he had been granted to open the facility. The neighbors’ arguments centered on issues of traffic safety, road access, and unease at the prospect of, as one opponent put it, “38 men and their friends living directly in our neighborhood . . . who have no ties to the community.”

Several also suggested that Dutton would make a killing charging the farm workers rent. As much as $11,000 a month, one neighbor predicted.

“We don’t now and never have rented farmworker housing for a profit,” an angry Dutton responded at the time.

He tells me that the monthly bills for routine maintenance, repairs, and utilities at the dormitory run between $3,000 and $4,000. As we leave the building, by way of a broad concrete veranda that overlooks a vineyard some 25 yards away, he says, “I’m in an unusual industry, in which I’m expected to furnish my employees with housing.”

He’s right. Over the years–especially since the early 1990s, when public alarm at the number of farmworkers living outdoors, by the Russian River, under bridges in St. Helena, in cars along the roadsides, focused renewed attention on the subject–the tenor of the farmworker housing discussion has centered on the wine industry’s responsibility to house its own.

Grape growers grumble about that.

“To me, it’s a community issue,” says Becky Jenkins, chief financial officer of Madrone Vineyard Management. “I mean, we pay better wages on average than McDonald’s and lots of other service businesses, but you don’t see people saying they should provide housing for their workers.”

It’s a sentiment echoed around the industry. At the same time, though, very few will flatly deny that responsibility. And many, Jenkins included, are trying to meet it.

Jenkins and her husband, Clarence, own Madrone Vineyard Management, farming and managing 850 acres of Sonoma Valley vineyards. The Madrone ranch lies a mile or so south of the village of Glen Ellen. Clarence grew up on the property, which they lease from a San Francisco family, and he and Becky have raised their own children there.

Jenkins meets me in the company’s office, a squat, one-room bunkerlike building. We shake hands and she registers her complaint about what she considers the unfair housing expectations placed on grape growers. Then we leave the office and I follow her across a dirt driveway and into a gray, two-story house that she tells me was built for Gen. Mariano Vallejo’s troops when he was military governor of what was then the Mexican state of Alta California.

Since 1987, when the Jenkins founded their company, they have housed, rent-free, 20 of their farmworker employees in Gen. Vallejo’s old bunkhouse. She says the house is full from February to October, and that many of the men have lived there for years. It shows. The old wooden house has a far cozier atmosphere than Warren Dutton’s dormitory, less like a boot camp and more like a well-loved summer camp. And here, too, my attention is caught by the stuffed animals–rabbits, bears, another elephant–that sit on so many of the beds.

Why does Jenkins, given her feeling that grape growers are unfairly saddled with the task of housing their workers, continue to do just that?

“It just seems like the right thing to do,” she says.

A Responsibility

“THEY COME HERE, they essentially have nothing. . . . We have a responsibility,” agrees Dutton, who provides housing–in the dormitory, a smaller bunkhouse, and five single-family houses on his Graton Avenue ranch–for nearly 60 of the roughly 100 farmworkers he employs through the year.

Indeed, some grape growers actively encourage providing housing for the farmworkers.

In February 1995, at the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance’s annual harvest review, Peter Haywood, owner of Los Chamizal Vineyards in Sonoma and president of Vineyard Worker Services’ board of directors, told his colleagues that “morally, it’s important for us to start building houses for the men we depend on to run our businesses.”

Later that year, Haywood and his wife bought a small apartment house in Boyes Hot Springs. Three of Los Chamizal’s permanent farmworker employees live there, along with their families, paying Haywood a rent that he says is pegged at “slightly less than a third of their income.”

Whatever the moral thing to do may be, the economic imperative is certainly there.

“It’s considered another way to be more competitive as an employer in a very tight labor market,” Anderson of the United Winegrowers tells me.

In fact, since 1992, Sonoma County grape growers have built 20 new bunkhouses on private property, bringing to 52 the total number of licensed employer-operated housing facilities in the county and creating almost 500 new beds for single men like those living in Dutton’s new bunkhouse. Much of that building was encouraged by a groundbreaking farmworker housing ordinance the county adopted in 1992. Hailed by the state as a model for similar efforts, the ordinance waived the development fees, which can exceed $5,000, and streamlined the lengthy process of applying for permits.

“I think that what many growers are realizing is that to keep their good, dedicated workers they need to provide them with housing, and better housing,” says Tracy Tesconi, a senior planner with the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department, where she is the resident farmworker housing expert.

Good Housing Gone Bad, or Simply Gone?

SINCE 1985, Napa County has experienced the opposite trend, with the number of privately operated camps dropping from 28 to eight. Along the way, the number of licensed farmworker beds–Napa requires any employee-provided housing with over four beds to be licensed–has slipped from more than 500 to about 260. And that bed count includes the three labor camps that make up the county’s own farmworker housing program: the Calistoga Farmworker Center, a 52-bed camp started by the Robert Mondavi Winery, and Beringer Vineyards’ 24-bed facility in the Carneros District.

The Mondavi and Beringer camps were operated privately until this year and remain privately owned, but are now jointly managed by the Napa Valley Housing Authority and the CHDC.

Just as there are undocumented workers (about half the farmworkers interviewed for this article said they were here illegally), there is unlicensed farmworker housing. No one really knows how much of it there is, but most people who know about such things agree that there is less and less of it.

Ruben Oropeza’s job is, among other things, to find unlicensed housing and make sure that it either becomes licensed or disappears. Unlike Sonoma County, where the responsibility for inspecting farmworker housing is handled by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, Napa County has, since the 1950s, run its own inspection program, which the state periodically audits.

Oropeza is a supervisor with the Napa County Department of Environmental Health, the agency that handles the county’s inspection program. I catch up with him the day after he accompanied state officials on an audit inspection of two licensed private labor camps, one for 11 men, the other for 32, in Yountville, about midway up Highway 29 between Napa and St. Helena.

“I wouldn’t mind living in either one of them,” he tells me.

In May, on Oropeza’s recommendation, the Napa County district attorney charged two longtime growers in the St. Helena area with operating illegal labor camps. One of those cases is still under way, and the defendant, Joseph Nichelini, politely declined to comment. Oropeza describes the housing Nichelini was providing for 16 farmworkers as, “basically, a Third World country operation.”

The other defendant, Bill Bartolucci, who farms 150 acres of Napa Valley vineyard, reached a settlement with the county in June under which, he says with a sort of resigned outrage, I can’t do anything like this ever again, or I’m going to jail.”

Bartolucci’s illegal camp was a small three-bedroom house. He tells me that five years ago his son lived there for a year. The house, just south of the St. Helena city limits, is on a 50-acre ranch Bartolucci’s parents bought in 1976. It’s not pretty, but it’s far from being ramshackle, and it has all its parts, windows, running water, a large kitchen, two showers. Oropeza filed his complaint after inspecting it last October.

Bartolucci says that for the past several years his regular crew, give or take a few friends and relatives, lived there, paying a total of $200 rent a month, arriving every year from Bakersfield toward the end of summer and staying through harvest. When Oropeza carried out his inspection, there were 16 men in the house, all of them, according to Bartolucci, relatives of the crew’s supervisor, Romero.

This year, says Bartolucci, the men will probably not come north. “They don’t have anywhere to stay.”

I ask Oropeza how conditions at the two licensed camps in Yountville compare with those at Bartolucci’s house.

“It’s about the same,” he says. “I’d issue him a permit today, from my point of view. I think his property was about 90 percent compliant. He just never bothered to get the licenses he needed.”

Between October, when Oropeza filed his complaint, and May, when the charges against him were filed, Bartolucci tried to do two things: complete the county’s application for a licensed labor camp, and see whether it was possible to bring the house up to date with the 1997 uniform building code, or UBC, as required by the application.

Neither of those things proved realistic, he says. For one thing, the house would have to be torn down and rebuilt to bring it into line with the building code.

When I tell Oropeza this, he responds, “I have a hard time believing that what needs to be done to get a permit can’t be done in a few days.”

Bartolucci tells me indignantly that his daughter-in-law, who took over most of the application’s paperwork, will send me the engineer’s letter.

A few days later Corena Bartolucci calls, then faxes me a short letter. Dated May 4, it is written by a Napa architect, Eric Forrestall, who reports that a structural engineer was consulted and that “after examination and discussion with the building department, it has been determined that the structure will require to be demolished and rebuilt in order to meet the 1997 UBC.”

Corena asks me if I’ve seen the house.

I start to say that I have, and she interrupts, finishing my sentence with “and it’s a perfectly fine house. Why can’t the county work with people who have housing and who want to provide housing?”

Oropeza notes rather skeptically that in his 16 years with the department, “only one person has come in and gone through the whole process to build a labor camp.” He says, “If they really want to build a labor camp, I’ll help them do it, I’ll come out and bang nails.”

But Linda Rieff, executive director of the Napa Valley Vintners Association, suggests that the complicated application process and the thicket of regulations act as a deterrent to more private housing.

“I know that people are afraid to house their own workers,” she says, “because they’re afraid they won’t do it right and that they’ll get into trouble.”

Spare room: A worker’s dormitory in Sonoma Valley.

A Turning Point?

OVER THE LAST DECADE, much of the legwork in the cause of farmworker housing in Napa County–the lobbying, the prodding, the fundraising–has come out of the St. Helena Farmworker Committee, an ad hoc group of about 20 citizens, church leaders, vintners, growers, and county officials who have been working together since 1991. And much of the committee’s energy has been devoted to keeping the nine-year-old Calistoga Farmworker Center afloat financially.

Until recently, the camp has been the only one of Napa’s three publicly managed labor camps to remain open all year (actually, for 11 months, allowing it to keep its temporary-housing designation). Consequently, it has assumed an outsized role in local attempts to find solutions to the county’s farmworker housing shortage. The CHDC has managed the camp since 1996, and a few years ago increased the number of beds from 40 to 60. Since 1993, when a string of federal grants expired, it has also operated with a repeated annual budget deficit of around $50,000.

Every year the committee has been forced back to the drawing board, resorting occasionally to public fundraising appeals and negotiating with the wine industry for contributions–a tedious and politically delicate process. Wineries and vintners own an estimated two-thirds of Napa’s 37,000 acres of grapes, and independent grape growers own the rest, giving rise to a long-running, at times heated argument about how the industry should fairly apportion its cost of supporting the farmworker housing program.

But while the Calistoga Farmworker Center’s deficit demanded repeated attention, it was becoming inescapably apparent that the camp was an increasingly inadequate answer to the chronic shortage of farmworker housing. Last year talk turned seriously to finding some land to build another camp, a daunting task in a valley where potential vineyard land can command upwards of $50,000 an acre.

For once, though, the discussion was infused with a rare unanimity of purpose. Agreement was reached that at least 300 additional beds were needed to accommodate the valley’s migrant workers. Wine-industry leaders joined with housing officials to form a Farmworker Housing Task Force and began a search for enough land and money to build an 80-bed camp. And in November the Napa Valley Vintners Association sent a rather remarkable letter to Napa County Counsel Robert Westmeyer.

It read, “The NVVA proposes and supports an assessment of $5 per acre of vineyard in Napa County . . . for the purposes of operating and maintaining existing and future migrant farm labor camps,” and asked Westmeyer to help set up a plan under which vintners and growers could tax themselves.

The proposal, which has the backing of the county’s Farm Bureau and grape growers, could raise upwards of $200,00 a year, but is hung up on state laws that make it difficult to tax only one group of landowners–even if they’ve asked for it.

“Nobody’s tried to do this before in the state,” says Westmeyer, whose office is still trying to come up with an answer to the vintners’ request.

While it’s unclear when, or even if, it will happen, the self-taxing proposal seems to have signaled a new level of cooperation and commitment on the part of the wine industry, giving Napa’s farmworker advocates a rejuvenated sense of what’s possible.

“It took a lot, but finally it’s happened. We’re working together toward the same target,” says Rosa Segura, chairperson and one of the original members of the Farmworker Committee. “We’ve got a consensus that farmworker housing is something we badly need, and that we don’t want farmworkers sleeping in cars and under bridges.”

I ask the Napa Valley Vintners Association’s Rieff, a savvy former journalist, why it took so long to reach this point.

“Frankly,” she says, “I think that because of the healthy times vintners and growers are enjoying, it’s a lot easier to get people to step in and be willing to help. I’ve seen the highs and lows, and this is the best it’s been.”

‘If Not Now, When?’

EARLY THIS YEAR, Isaac Perez, manager of the Calistoga Farmworker Center for the past four years, decided he could no longer do what his job, more and more, was requiring of him. That is, he decided he could not turn away any more men who hoped to stay at the camp, could no longer explain, day after day, that there was no more room. So he let them in.

By April, more than 100 farmworkers were sleeping at the camp, 120 by one report, in the kitchen, the dining hall, on the grounds, in the camp office, in cars in the parking lot. On the side of the dining hall, Perez wrote a plea in green paint: “If not now, when? If not here, where?”

On April 17, at the monthly meeting of the Farmworker Committee, he threatened to resign and called for a meeting and press conference to call attention to the crisis and press for a solution. It was held the next week and attended by about 100 growers, county officials, and farmworker advocates, but by then his public frustration had already galvanized others to act.

Two days before the press conference, the Napa Valley Vintners Association, Napa Valley Growers Association, and Napa County Farm Bureau issued a joint statement recognizing “the urgent, immediate need to provide housing for one of the valley’s most valuable and remarkable workforces, its seasonal farmworkers.”

The three organizations also called for a voluntary $10 per acre assessment on vineyard property to raise seed money for more farmworker housing. The valley’s vineyard owners have responded, contributing $102,000 through the end of June.

At the same time, Robert Mondavi and the Napa Valley Housing Authority agreed to open the Mondavi camp in May rather than August, and to begin keeping it open for 11 months instead of its customary four. The Beringer camp, too, pending the disposition of a stand of eucalyptus trees about which some environmental and safety concerns have been raised, is projected to become an 11-month facility.

According to Rieff, negotiations are also under way with at least three landowners who are considering donating the one and a half to two acres needed to build a new camp.

At press time, a special meeting of the county’s Board of Supervisors was scheduled for July 13 to summarize the progress of all the separate efforts currently under way. The formation of a formal oversight committee is also expected, says Peter Drier, executive director of the Napa Valley Housing Authority, to “funnel together all the resources and activities relative to farmworker housing.”

Also on the agenda: the question of how and where to house the hundreds of farmworkers who still will be without beds this harvest; a tent city is among the proposals under discussion.

The good earth: After working in the fields all day, Ramon Cervin, 68, tends a garden in exchange for room and board.

‘Until I Am Buried’

AT THE CALISTOGA Farmworker Center, the outside wall of the dining hall still sports the plea that Perez painted there. Perez, though, is gone. The week following the press conference, he was forced to resign. Too many policies had gone unheeded. He had let too many men in, more than county regulations allow, and for 10 days had stopped collecting rent altogether.

I happened to call the camp on the day Perez was moving out. We had a brief conversation, trying to arrange a time to speak again, and he sounded cheerful, relieved at the thought of putting six 16-hour days a week behind him and no longer having to tell farmworkers that the camp is full.

Perez and I never do manage to connect again, but I speak at length with his replacement, Angel Calderon, a thoughtful 48-year-old man who looks a bit like a young Peter Sellers. He tells me he is turning men away every day.

“It’s really hard,” he says, “really hard.”

Later, I accompany Calderon when he knocks on the door of a room in the bunkhouse. The man who invites us in has lived at the camp 10 months of every year since he first came to the Napa Valley in 1979. His name is José Mesa, and, because he is one of the first to arrive, he doesn’t get turned away He is 55, solid, with curly hair the color of steel wool.

We sit facing each other across the tiny room and I ask the usual questions.

His first harvest was with the old Christian Brothers Winery, and he earned $3.50 an hour. Now he makes $9.50 an hour working for Vista Vineyards.

His wife and six children live in Michoacán. The legal work has been dragging on, but he hopes the whole family will be able to join him soon so they can live in the valley together.

“How long will you work in the vineyards?” I ask.

He shrugs. “Until I am buried,” he says.

From the June 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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