Napa wineries pitch in to house workers

Jeff Tyler Oct 31, 2011

Napa wineries pitch in to house workers

Jeff Tyler Oct 31, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: This was not the easiest of harvests for farmers in at least a couple of states. New immigration laws in Alabama and Georgia meant fewer Hispanic workers were willing to take the risks involved in showing up for work.

On the other side of the country, though, it’s a very different story. Napa, Calif., has embraced migrant labor. The region famous for its wine also has some of the country’s best farm worker housing.

Marketplace’s Jeff Tyler reports.

Jeff Tyler: The grape harvest is just about finished in Napa Valley. Teams of Hispanic men move fast along row after row of grapevines. They slice the grapes off in bunches, tossing them into a bucket that they kick along with their feet.

Pat Garvey: Very, very little of the work that we do in the vineyard is done by machine. Ninety-nine percent is done by hand.

Pat Garvey owns a family vineyard and winery called Flora Springs. About 20 years ago, he realized that many of the people who worked for him didn’t have a place to live.

Garvey: We noticed that there were fellows who were sleeping in vans. And sleeping in buses. So we thought, “How can we do that? How can we have this happen to a workforce that supports us?”

In fact, it happens to farm workforces everywhere. The Department of Agriculture says farm workers endure some of the worst housing in the country. They often live in overcrowded dormitories or in shacks without running water.

In Napa, some of the big vineyards used to provide housing. But the expenses and regulations became too much of a burden. That left low-wage workers without many options for shelter.

Angel Calderon: Years ago, I found about 40 farm workers living under a bridge.

Angel Calderon is the manager at River Ranch. It’s one of three local centers that offer a bed and three meals, for $12 a night. That fee covers half the budget. Growers pay the other half.

In a large rec room, Hispanic men watch TV or shoot pool. Some have papers to work here legally. Some don’t. The center doesn’t ask. Moises Sanchez says he’s legal. He’s worked in Napa for almost four decades, going back to Mexico for three months each year.

Moises Sanchez: Before the center existed, I would start to worry two or three months before I needed to return to Napa. Where will I live? The difference now is that, if I come here, there is a place for me to live.

Now that he’s got access to stable housing, Sanchez has brought his 29-year-old son Elias with him. The cheap rent allows Elias to save money for his education back in Mexico.

Elias Sanchez: I came here mainly to work a little and make money for my studies. I’m preparing for a career as a veterinarian.

Manager Angel Calderon gave me a tour.

Calderon: This is a typical room.

It’s looks a bit like a college dorm room — two beds. Some personal stuff. A computer. A small refrigerator. The walls are plastered with posters of cars and pin-up girls in colorful bikinis.

Calderon: You see details like family pictures.

The total budget for all three centers runs a little more than $1 million a year. Vintners pay almost half of that in the form of a voluntary assessment — $10 per acre.

Back at the vineyard, Pat Garvey says the assessment costs him around $6,000 a year. But that saves him money on training new workers.

Garvey: We don’t turnover our personnel that much. If we do add anybody, it’s maybe a cousin or it’s a friend. Somebody from the same pueblo down in Mexico.

The center gives 180 lucky migrant workers a temporary home. But River Ranch manager Angel Calderon says there are still enough homeless workers to fill two more centers.

Calderon: It’s easy to find 12 people in the garage. Sleeping in the garage.

Farmworker housing in Napa is among the best in the country. But it still has a way to go before it shelters all the guys now living in garages or camping under bridges.

In Napa, I’m Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

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