October 1998, Volume 4, Number 4
Farm Worker Housing
It has been increasingly difficult to find adequate and affordable housing
for workers who move into rural areas to fill seasonal farm jobs. Federal and
state regulations evolved to ensure that, if employers offer housing to farm
workers, it must meet minimum standards.
Instead of bringing farm worker housing up to higher housing standards,
many farmers eliminated their on-farm housing, pushing workers into nearby
towns and cities. The number of labor camps operated by California farmers
dropped from 5,000 in 1968 to 1,000 in 1998. Living off the farm increases the
workers' costs, since they typically pay more rent than they would have been
charged for on-farm housing and they must also pay for rides to work. Many of
the small towns and cities near farming areas that depend on seasonal farm
workers are or have sections that are in effect overgrown labor camps.
The federal and state governments have been unable to fill the gap. The
USDA's Rural Housing Services received $15 million in FY96 to make loans for
farm worker housing and $10 million to make grants for those who promise to
build farm worker housing, usually for families. This $25 million ($28 million
in FY98) was projected to build, according to Rural Housing Services, about 550
units, indicating a cost of $45,000 a unit. Since 1983, 7,584 houses and
apartment units have been built under the USDA Section 514/516 program, an
average of 506 a year: http://www.ruralhome.org
California. Many believe that, in order to obtain farm workers
through the existing H-2A program or a new guest worker program, the private
sector will have to construct more farm worker housing for solo men. However,
most communities will not permit housing for solo men to be built.
In June 1998, Joe Rios, who founded FLC J.J. Rios Farm Services in 1980,
announced plans to build a $5 million camp for 400 solo male farm workers at
the intersection of Tully Road and Harney Lane south of Lodi, near Stockton,
California. J.J. Rios has a peak 1,000 farm workers, primarily to develop
vineyards and to harvest grapes. Rios estimates that he could break even by
charging workers about $6 a day.
San Joaquin County supervisors in mid-July rejected the proposal on a 3-2
vote for the new labor camp. In San Joaquin county, the number of labor camps
has declined from several hundred in the 1960s to about 60 in 1998.
Near Oceanside, California, Harry Singh & Sons built a farm worker
housing complex in 1990 at a cost of $2.5 million, including $400,000 for
permits and fees. Singh can house 328 solo men in its 41 sleeping rooms, which
contain eight bunks each. The workers who live in the complex pay $3 a day for
housing, and $10 a day for meals.
However, in the northern part of San Diego county, there were at least 38
informal migrant camps in 1989, including one that housed 750 people near Del
Mar. In 1998, there are believed to be about 10 informal migrant camps.
Pat Harrison, a design professor at the University of California, Davis
developed a prefab-housing unit that can house six single men in about 800
square feet and can be built for about $35 a square foot, or $33,000. The unit
is a 57-foot long narrow, wood-framed building constructed on top of a
steel-carriage system composed of steel beams that are 14-feet wide. It rests
on an axle and can be towed from site to site.
California's 1998-99 $77 billion-state budget includes $3.5 million in
state funds to help build and refurbish 180 units of farm worker housing in
Shafter and Lamont.
Washington. The small two-desk office of the Employment Security
Department in Mattawa was taken over on October 8-9, 1998 by 15 to 30 activists
protesting the living conditions of migrant farm workers the Columbia Basin
area. Hundreds of farm workers camp out near Mattawa along the Columbia River;
there are reportedly health problems from drinking and bathing in the
The protesters demanded that Washington state Governor Gary Locke declare
an emergency in the Columbia Basin and provide assistance, similar to what the
state would do in the event of a natural disaster. Locke agreed to try to find
lodging for families with children who are now living in cardboard shacks along
the Columbia River. The state government is responsible, say the protesters,
because it allowed orchards to be developed without housing for workers.
Washington has relatively short seasons that require large numbers of
harvest workers to pick cherries (a peak 15,000 to 20,000 workers) and apples
(40,000 to 45,000 workers). By some estimates, 150,000 workers are employed in
Washington agriculture and 62,000 are migrants who need temporary housing in
However, the number of on-farm labor camps is declining. In 1969, some 697
Washington farms had licensed on-farm labor camps for 22,441 workers; in 1996,
182 farms had licensed camps for 9,600 workers.
For years, farm workers slept in "tents" during short harvests such as the
two-to-four-week June cherry harvest; the harvest is often less than one week
on a farm. A 1969 state law established standards for such tent camps,
including the requirement that they have seven-foot high sidewalls,
electricity, mechanical refrigeration, an approved septic system, cooking
facilities and bathrooms. However, these standards were not rigorously
enforced during the short cherry harvest.
In 1995, Washington approved lower standards for tents used to house cherry
pickers, and 2,000 additional beds were offered in on-farm labor camps. Farm
worker advocates sued, complaining of second-class housing, and persuaded
Washington's governor to veto a tent cabin bill in 1997. In 1998, Washington
approved tent cabins and weekly inspections, and provided state funds for more
permanent housing. Stepped-up enforcement led to fines. In 1997, grower W.
Bradley Carlson Ltd. of Pasco was fined $30,000 for having an illegal on-farm
The threat of increased enforcement prompted many farmers in 1998 to close
their on-farm housing rather than invest the estimated $2,000 a bed to bring
the tents up to higher standards. As a result, more cherry harvesters slept in
their cars and informal camps. In an August 9, 1998 editorial, the Seattle
Times said that Washington is lucky that "dogs and cats do not harvest
Washington crops, because the public would never tolerate such treatment of
Cherry acreage has been expanding, from 12,200 acres in 1978 to 18,600
acres in 1997. There are 2,500 cherry growers; the average orchard is 10
acres. Costs of production average about $6,500 an acre; revenues can top
$10,000 an acre. The 90,000 tons of cherries harvested in Washington in 1997
were worth $129 million.
Farmers would like to be able to use tents for three to five years, but
worker advocates want permanent housing constructed quickly and tents phased
out. Growers argue that, if tents are phased out too quickly, they will
provide no housing at all, which will leave workers worse off. There is no
requirement that growers provide housing. However, if they do, it must meet
An August 2, 1998 article concluded that Washington needs "a combination of
emergency shelter, temporary-harvest tent camps, on-farm labor camps and
low-income housing in rural communities" to house farm workers.
Oregon. Oregon estimates that a peak 150,000 farm workers are
employed in June. Oregon has 373 registered farm labor camps and inspects an
average 22 each year. A 1991 survey found that less than 10 percent were very
bad and very good. Most of the registered camps are plywood and tin structures
and are 30 or 40 years old; most have minimal charges, for example, $20 a week.
Oregon does not permit tent cabins, but relaxes rules for permanent housing
that is used for farm workers. For example, Oregon requires one shower and
sink for each 15 workers, while Washington requires one shower for each 10
workers and one sink for each six workers.
The Oregonian ran a series of articles in July 1998 on farm worker housing,
profiling Campo Azul near the city of Scholls and the ex-FLC who manages the 54
cabins built in the 1930s and 1940s. The camp charges residents $20 a week and
is open year-round. In early September, Oregon's Occupational Safety and
Health Division proposed an $850 fine for the camp operated by Harold Kraemer
Farms Inc, alleging that a house and adjoining buildings were an unregistered
farm labor camp.
In 1996, an umbrella organization for 16 religious denominations,
Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, endorsed the boycott of Norpac Foods Inc.
called by the Woodburn-based Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United
(PCUN). The union later extended the boycott to Steinfeld's Products and
Wholesome and Hearty Foods. The 280,000-member Catholic Archdiocese of
Portland has not endorsed the boycott.
The boycott grew out of a September 1992 dispute with one of the 250
grower-cooperative Norpac Foods, Kraemer Farms; Kraemer refused to talk to the
union. Norpac says that its nonfarm processing work force is unionized and
that it cannot force farmers such as Kraemer to deal with unions.
Georgia. The defeat of the AgJobs program in Congress prompted
several Georgia onion growers to begin constructing farm worker housing in
anticipation of requesting H-2A workers in 1999. Vidalia onion growers hoped
that AgJobs would permit them to avoid constructing new farm worker housing to
get legal workers.
Under a 1998 harvest time agreement with the INS, raids were halted when
the growers promised to cooperate with INS to verify the legal status of newly
hired workers. Growers later pulled out of the agreement, hoping that the
AgJobs program would be approved.
Lori Henson, "Migrant program expected to die in Congress," Savannah
Morning News, October 16, 1998. Eric Pryne and Jim Lynch, "Farmhands make home
at squalid campsite," Seattle Times, October 7, 1998. Alex Pulaski, "Farm
boycott evolves into spiritual struggle for region's churches," Oregonian,
October 11 1998. Lynda V. Mapes, "Finding real solutions to Washington's
shame," Seattle Times, August 9, 1998. Fruit pickers' summer of squalor,"
Seattle Times, August 2, 1998. Alex Pulaski, "Washington looks south in
forming housing rules," Oregonian, July 19 1998. Bill Lindelof, "San Joaquin
County says no to migrant farm labor camp," Sacramento Bee, July 15, 1998.
Diane Lindquist, "Where do migrants live?" San Diego Union Tribune, July 10,