All hands on deck: SLO County addresses a farm labor and housing shortage

Thursday, August 9, 2018

More than two years have passed, but the image is still fresh in the collective consciousness of the San Luis Obispo County agricultural community: The anger and threats that led to a destructive fire and then, ultimately, the abandonment of seven homes in Nipomo. They were nearly ready to house 112 foreign strawberry field workers on temporary visas—until someone decided put a match to it.

The arson occurred on April 6, 2016, at the height of an intense swell of neighborhood opposition to the development on the residential cul-de-sac, Mads Place. Shaken by the experience, property owners Greg and Donna France of Mar Vista Berries abandoned the project. Authorities haven't identified a suspect, and their investigation is ongoing, according to Cal Fire.

Twenty-eight months after the France's project went up in flames (note: only one home went up in literal flames), the lack of farmworker housing in SLO County remains an unresolved issue for many growers and field workers.

"Really, nothing has been done since [the fire]," said 4th District SLO County Supervisor Lynn Compton, who represents Arroyo Grande, Oceano, and Nipomo, where berries and vegetables are heavily farmed. "[Farmworkers] come up here, and they don't have anywhere to live."

The farmworker housing shortage links directly with the general farm labor shortage, which continues to impact the local ag industry: Vegetable production levels hit a 35-year low in the county in 2017. While housing is a critical need, with the number of H-2A visa workers roughly doubling in the last two years, the Mads Place incident lingers as a chilling example of a failed attempt to place legal foreign farmworkers next to resistant local residents. In the meantime, the same workers plucking berries and pruning wine grape vines in SLO County are often commuting to the area from surrounding regions, like the Santa Maria, Salinas, or Central valleys, according public visa documents and local growers who spoke with New Times