Within cities across the Central Coast, ordinances are popping up that limit, and even prevent housing options for H2A workers. Unfortunately, these cities are using their ordinances as a chance to blame temporary agriculture workers for a lack of solutions to the affordable housing crisis. Many growers have offered to build farmworker housing on their own properties but they can’t get projects titled. The counties don’t want farmworker housing anymore because of the emergency services involved and the use of septic systems. The cities don’t want farmworker housing anymore because of local displacement and a misguided fear of crime and the impact on property values. Once again growers are caught in the middle.
I have been in this industry for almost twenty-five years and have watched the lack of affordable housing issues go from chronic to acute. Now it has hit a tipping point where growers’ planting schedules are being dictated by their inability to find enough local workers to harvest their crops. Every time an acre is plowed under because there aren’t enough workers, someone pays for that somewhere- usually the grower. Every time a customer is short because we can’t get our crops to market, a new area learns a little more about how to grow our crops. The micro-climates here don’t guarantee customers have to have Salinas Valley crops anymore. One only needs to look at how much lettuce and berries are grown in Canada, Florida, Mexico, or other areas to see that. It didn’t all leave here because of a lack of affordable worker housing, but that is certainly becoming a leading reason today.
Cities need to understand that this industry has many moving parts that are all interconnected. Without housing, growers can’t bring in H2A workers. Without temporary workers to fill the vacant positions crops don’t get harvested. If crops don’t get harvested regular workers get laid off and growers can’t spend money locally to get the next crop ready. Many of the city’s permanent residents are employed by the same companies that need more temporary workers. As those companies shift crop production to other areas where they can count on harvest labor, that work is not coming back. It takes a substantial investment to open a new field from prepping to installing drainage, drilling wells, etc. It isn’t going to be moved back here just because the housing situation is resolved.
Local residents have voiced concerns at city council meetings that H2A worker housing will bring increased crime even though no statistics support that allegation. They mention they believe property values will go down, even though some housing projects are more modern than many local hotels. They also claim that H2A workers send all their money to Mexico, even though growers have to spend money locally to feed, house, transport, and provide services for H2A workers. One grower alone at the Salinas meeting said he spends over $100,000 a week locally just to take care of his H2A workforce. Another grower said he provides transportation every weekend to local shopping centers for his temporary workers. H2A is not a permanent fix. It is just a tool so that growers can get their crops out of the ground.
I am not trying to minimize the issues I heard from residents at local city council hearings. No one wants to see local residents displaced. No one wants to see children impacted. Cities need to take a leadership position and work with agriculture to find the balance. Agriculture, either directly or indirectly, supports the economy in this valley and needs to be invited to the table to talk about solutions. Demonizing H2A workers may sit well with local residents, but it’s a deflection from the bigger issue. Pitting one labor force against another is just plain wrong.
In the past, I have managed some of the largest agriculture companies in this industry and if I were in that position today I wouldn’t be waiting around for the county and the cities to stop talking and do something about it. I would be looking outside of the area like a lot of shippers have already started to do. Time is not on our side. Unlike twenty-five years ago, many of our corps are now being grown in other states and even greenhouses.
This is a housing crisis situation, not just an H2A housing issue. We aren’t going to fix it by displacing one segment in favor of another. We don’t need another committee or another hearing. We need the cities to invite agriculture to the table and work with us to find a solution to H2A farmworker housing so that growers can utilize a temporary tool to get their crops out of the ground. Every time we give someone outside of our area a reason to try and grow our crops, we lose a few more acres of production. We all need to ask where we would be without agriculture. There are no other major employers waiting in line to move here so we need to do everything we can to keep what we have.