Sonoma County farmworkers’ struggles include housing, health
Long hours spent hunched over, installing countless drippers on a vineyard irrigation system, did a number on Jose Luis Apolinar's back.
His wife, Rosa, knows what to do next. After dinner, she takes a pair of scissors and goes into the backyard of their southeast Santa Rosa home, snipping off several leafy sprigs from a potted rue plant. The pungent herb, mixed with 16 ounces of rubbing alcohol in a warm bath, is the key ingredient to an age-old remedy Rosa learned from her mother, who she described as an indigenous woman from Michoacán, Mexico.
'But once he gets out of the tub, he has to wrap himself up and it's straight to bed,' said Rosa, coming out of the bathroom, drying her hands after stirring the concoction. 'By tomorrow, he'll be really strong.'
Strong enough for another day in Sonoma County's vineyards. The labor is hard, but Jose Apolinar, 54, doesn't complain. It's full-time, year-round work that — along with an occasional catering gig cooking carnitas — pays the rent and bills. Rosa is a vineyard worker as well, though only part-time during the harvest and a couple of months leading up to it.
Jose and Rosa Apolinar are among 4,000 to 6,000 farmworkers who live in the county year-round and form the backbone of the local agriculture sector. Nearly all work in the wine industry, where they tend and harvest the county's $600 million grape crop.
Twenty years ago, a greater share of that work was done by migrant farmworkers, young men who passed through the North Coast, especially during the harvest season.
But now, most of that work is done by farmworkers who have sunk roots in the local community. They rent local apartments and homes. Their children attend local schools. While the vast majority are men, more women are joining their ranks, according to those familiar with the industry. And they are among the county's most impoverished residents.
The presence of a local workforce rooted in the community and struggling to survive is among the key findings in a new county survey that seeks to document the health and well-being of the county's agriculture workforce.
MOST IN WINE INDUSTRY
The survey, which county officials described as the county's first, found that 92 percent of farmworkers work in the wine industry. Significant numbers live in costly and crowded housing; earn insufficient incomes to meet their family's basic needs; have limited health insurance coverage; have restricted access to preventive and medical care; and experience significant health disparities.
'We really need to recognize that they are part of our community, and we need to include them in our health planning,' Sonoma County Public Health Officer Karen Milman said. 'The goal is to start with an awareness of who is in our community and how to improve their health.'
The survey, which was released last month, was conducted in late 2013 at day labor centers, community health centers and other locations frequented by those who work in agriculture. The county's Department of Health Services partnered with California Human Development to conduct and analyze the grant-funded survey.
The findings mirror statewide labor trends in agriculture that are in part driven by the nation's immigration policies, said Chris Paige, CEO of California Human Development, a local nonprofit agency that provides education, housing and other services. The farmworker population has gotten older in the past 10 years, with many forming families and settling into local communities, he said.
'We value open space and sustainable agriculture, but that sustainability is linked to a sustainable workforce,' Paige said, adding that such a workforce needs affordable housing, health care, education and other necessities to prosper.
Abraham, an undocumented immigrant who lives in Healdsburg, was a migrant farmworker until the border became too difficult and dangerous to cross. Abraham, 56, who asked that only his first name be used for fear of being identified and deported, said that throughout the 1990s he frequently and easily crossed the border illegally.
But heightened border security following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, made illegal crossings at urban points of entry such as El Paso and San Diego far more difficult. Abraham and other undocumented immigrants, crossing for the first time or eager to get back to their jobs in the United States, instead entered the country in remote and inhospitable areas such as the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona.
Abraham, who is originally from the impoverished Mexican state of Oaxaca, said he hasn't crossed the border since 2004, when he witnessed a fellow countryman, a young man in his 20s, nearly die in the desert. Since then, Abraham has chosen to stay in Sonoma County, refusing to risk the border even though his wife in Mexico is becoming increasingly ill from osteoporosis.