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Desired for their labor, rejected as neighbors. Farmworkers in California face hostile communities

The “urban farm homes” nestled along a cul-de-sac off an old farm road in Nipomo, Calif., had lofted floor plans with more than 2,500 square feet of living space — “perfect … for multi-generational living,” the advertisements boasted.

Strawberry grower Greg France and his wife, Donna, had other ideas for the planned seven-home development. They would use it to host more than 100 workers coming up from Mexico to pick strawberries on their farms under an agricultural guest worker program.

When neighbors in the southern San Luis Obispo County town of 17,000 saw bunks being moved into one of the newly constructed houses, anger erupted. Meetings were held, fingers were pointed and death threats were hurled at the Frances.

On April 6, 2016, flames devoured one of the unfinished homes, not yet wired for electricity. Investigators almost immediately concluded it was arson.

The case remains unsolved. So does the housing problem for temporary guest workers in towns and cities along California’s coastal agricultural belt.

Increasingly fond of locally grown produce, Californians are far less enthusiastic about locally housed farmworkers. They have deployed lawsuits, hastily written regulations — and, apparently, the torch — to segregate thousands of seasonal workers to seedy roadside hotels and crowded housing in cities where affordable shelter is already limited.

“They love the strawberries, but they don’t like the farmworkers,” said Lucas Zucker, policy and communication director for Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, a labor advocacy group in Ventura.

That age-old “not in my backyard” reaction threatens growers’ ability to fill the current labor shortage and exacerbates the long-term housing crisis for local farmworkers.

Last year, California recruited more than 11,000 guest workers, largely to pick strawberries or cut lettuce, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of Department of Labor data. Recruitment in the first four months of this year is up 25% over a similar period last year.

All of those guest workers have to be housed by their employers, at no charge to the worker, under the visa program known as H-2A.

More than 1,400 of those guest workers have squeezed into the Central Coast city of Santa Maria, where 1 in 5 residents already live below the poverty level. An additional 2,500 are staying in the impoverished cities of the Salinas Valley, according to federal records.

Only 12 are living in the residential center of Nipomo, where France is selling the last of his houses. This season, his contracted guest workers will bunk in Santa Maria.

“We’ve learned our lesson,” France said. “We need to be sure they’re in a suitable area, both for them and their neighbors.”

Michelle Lopez checks the quality of strawberries picked by local farmworkers for Mar Vista Berry, family owned and operated by Greg France, near Guadalupe, Calif.
Heraclio Hernandez of Oaxaca, Mexico, a local farmworker, picks strawberries for Mar Vista Berry, family owned and operated by Greg France, near Guadalupe, Calif.
Greg France, right, owner of Mar Vista Berry, inspects the quality of strawberries picked by local workers. France recruited foreign guest workers under the federal H-2A visa program last year, but his plans to house them in Nipomo, Calif., ended with an arson fire that remains unsolved. His guest workers will be provided by a labor contractor this year.

An old sugar mill site in the Salinas Valley seemed like a suitable place to house as many as 800 guest workers for Tanimura & Antle Produce.

The company’s workers traditionally harvested lettuce and vegetables in the Imperial Valley in winter, moved to the Central Valley in early spring, then to the Salinas Valley. But that migration has waned as housing in Salinas became more expensive — the 156,000 residents of the city pay more of their income for shelter than most people in California, making it one of the state’s least affordable places to live.

Tanimura & Antle struggled to find enough laborers to harvest its Salinas Valley crops — $2 million in lettuce was left to rot in 2015.

The company drew up plans to house Mexican guest workers at Spreckels Crossing, a 4.5-acre campus of eight buildings set amid athletic fields, a barbecue area and recreation hall. Workers would get to and from fields by company bus and take public transit to Salinas, three miles north.