Note: This is an archived version of an article that first appeared in 2016.
San Mateo County has the highest paying technology jobs in the nation. It’s also home to some of the most underprivileged people in California – farm workers.
The county's coast is a study in contrasts. Commuters, rushing on Highway 1 to their tech jobs, are slowed by muddy tractors. Neat rows of brussels sprouts and artichokes end at the borders of posh golf courses and luxury homes.
About 1,700 men and women work on the county’s farms and nurseries. Nearly all are immigrants, many with families, who earn minimum wage or a little more in jobs most of the domestic labor force does not want.
That’s why in the interest of preserving the region’s rich history of agriculture and helping a traditionally low-income sector of the labor force, the Board of Supervisors has launched two new programs to help the county's farm workers.
At Cabrillo Farms, located across Highway 1 from the Half Moon Bay Airport, two new modular three-bedroom homes now house laborers who had lived in 1970s-era aluminum-sided trailers. The homes are part of a $1 million pilot program to repair or replace substandard farm labor housing at numerous farms and to study the needs of laborers and their families.
Down the coast, Puente de la Costa Sur, a nonprofit group, is sending outreach specialists to farms, ranches, labor camps and other locations in Pescadero, La Honda, Loma Mar and San Gregorio to link low-income workers with access to health care and other services. It's a new initiative to help a critical sector of the labor force yet one, as Puente's Ben Renz said, "works very hard and works very long hours but remains completely under the radar."
County Supervisor Don Horsley said the laborers are receiving the attention they merit.
“I think it’s our duty to support agriculture and to make sure our farm laborers have decent living standards, something that we can be proud of,” said Horsley, whose District 3 encompasses the coast. “We want to preserve ag, and first of all you need to have the people willing to work in ag and you need to provide them with the services they deserve."
The Board of Supervisors is funding the two initiatives from Measure A, the half-cent countywide sales tax approved by voters in November 2012.
Horsley said the initiatives help achieve three goals: sustain a locally grown food supply; protect farmland from development pressures; and provide basic needs for residents with low incomes.
Dave Lea, a third generation San Mateo County farmer, grows brussels sprouts, artichokes and fava beans on Cabrillo’s 200 acres. The County financed a $200,000 no-interest loan to purchase and install the two modular homes on his farm. Lea and his wife, Pat, spent about $60,000 to upgrade water, sewage and electrical systems to meet building and fire codes.
“With the costs of rent on the coastside now, it’s very important that we have housing on our farms and ranches that’s affordable so we can keep agriculture viable here on the coast,” Dave Lea said. “As farmers, we would like to provide more housing for our workers but the cost of permits, the construction -- it gets very expensive very fast."
The new homes are for single adult men who pay about $2 a day in rent. The County will forgive the loan after 7 years if the Leas continue to provide low-cost housing for their workers.
The Cabrillo project is the largest of several farm worker housing and rehab projects either under way or completed on the coast. Separately, the County has contracted with Puente for $351,000 for outreach to low-income residents.
Without immigrant labor, it’s unlikely that any produce from the coast would make it to tables and restaurants. Yet a locally grown food supply is critical, Horsley said, as consumers increasingly seek out sustainable agriculture harvested with respect for the rights of farmworkers.
This is especially true in food-savvy Northern California, where the word “locavore” was coined to describe a movement in which people seek to eat locally harvested foods. Motivations vary, but supporters say buying locally grown food has many benefits: it supports the local economy, requires less fossil fuel to transport and promotes a safer and healthier food supply.
“We don’t know what they do in other countries as far as pesticides and other chemicals, but we know what they do here,” Horsley said. “We’re better off with food grown in our backyard.”
At the same time, as the Wall Street Journal has reported, the supply of farm labor has shrunk in recent years “partly due to tighter U.S. control of its southern border” and a declining Mexican birthrate.
“If you supply housing,” Lea said, “you have a better chance of attracting and retaining the workers you need in the field.”
If local agriculture is going to survive, Horsley said, some level of government housing assistance is needed due to local housing prices and the high cost of living. He said the pilot program is modeled after existing assistance programs for low-income workers.
“We do not have the big corporate farms like they do elsewhere. Our farms tend to be smaller and family owned,” Horsley said. “What we don’t want to see is these farms turned into private estates. One way to achieve that is to provide safe and affordable housing for our labor force.”
Published April 2016.