April 11, 2009

Washington farmworker complex could serve as model

The Wenatchee World


A new seasonal farmworker housing development near Malaga - government financed, but grower owned - may be the answer to the decades-old question of how best to house migrant farmworkers needed to pick local tree fruit crops.

The Sage Bluff Seasonal Farmworker Housing development will be up and running for farmworkers, who will soon arrive to pick cherries, thin apples and perform other orchard tasks. The development will house 126 residents in insulated, heated and air-conditioned cabins. The project is the first of its kind, said officials who gathered for an open house and tour of the site Thursday.

"This idea is only going to gain in popularity and demand," predicted Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, owner of the development. The Growers League is a Yakima-based nonprofit organization that represents growers on labor relations issues.

If successful, Gempler said the project will be a blueprint for more grower-owned seasonal farmworker housing developments in other agricultural areas.

The development - built by Blodgett Construction of Malaga - is made up of three circles of seven cabins each. Each cabin has six beds, a refrigerator, a table, chairs and lockers. Nothing fancy, but roomy, tough and energy efficient. The Growers League worked with the Office of Rural Farmworker Housing (ORFH) to secure about $2.5 million in grants and loans from the state Department of Commerce, Trade and Economic Development.

The nonprofit Farmworker Housing agency steered the project through a maze of government regulations. The Growers League also obtained a loan from Northwest Farm Credit Services. Total cost of the project was about $2.8 million.

Each resident will be issued a different numerical code to enter the cabin, said Nancy Danko, ORFH's housing development specialist. She said security guards will be on hand at night. Separate bathrooms and showers for men and women are located close to each circle, as is a laundry unit. A large communal kitchen area includes a walk-in refrigerator with locker space for each person's perishable foods and additional lockers for nonperishable foods. Long countertops have 16 built-in four-burner stoves, 12 sinks and six microwave ovens. There's an indoor eating space as well as a large screened-in canopy for outdoor eating and gathering.

Growers can lease space for their employees or workers can come and rent a bunk themselves for $9 a night. The complex will open later this month and probably remain open until November, Gempler said.

"This really is groundbreaking in more ways than one," said Marty Miller, ORFH executive director. The agency has orchestrated several long-term seasonal farmworker housing developments for families, but never bunkhouse-style housing for migrants who come to pick cherry and apple crops, he said. Farmworkers used to stay in orchard housing until the state clamped down on regulations, making it easier for growers to tear down their own housing and let workers fend for themselves, he said. It took years for government funded tent camps at Monitor and near Pangborn Memorial Airport to get started, but they were never meant to be more than a temporary solution to the housing problem, he said. The Pangborn tent camp closed last year. The new grower-owned camp is a unique and permanent solution, he said.

The Growers League began looking for ways to help growers house their employees about five years ago, said Richard Halvorson, a Toppenish grower and president of the organization.

"Agriculture was getting beat up in the press because there were a lot of farmworkers camped by the river. We understood we had a problem," he said. "What we came up with is somewhat private and somewhat public. I'm glad we could come together. Usually we're bumping heads."