In wine country, Sonoma tightens limits on farm work during wildfires
After a year of loud protests and stakeholder meetings, Sonoma County announced it has standardized and reformed its “ag pass” program, which allows farms to bring workers into evacuated areas during fires in forest when other residents were told to flee.
The county board of supervisors voted unanimously on Tuesday to preserve the program, but also imposed limits on when and how farmers could use it. In a blow to the region’s $8 billion wine industry, the council has restricted winemakers’ ability to harvest wine grapes during wildfires – a move that could help protect thousands of workers farmers who work each year through the climatic disasters of the region, but who could increase the losses of harvest of vineyards.
The decision was applauded by local labor activists, who urged the county to radically overhaul the program. “Workers have been organizing for over a year now, and the fact that this has even come to the table and passed is only thanks to their hard work,” said North Bay spokesperson Davida Sotelo Escobedo. Jobs With Justice, a workers’ rights organization. . “It’s a powerful step forward.”
Sonoma launched its farm pass program in 2017 following the Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and threatened farms and vineyards across the region. It has continued every year since then.
By letting farm workers work in evacuated areas, some farmers and government officials see it as a lifeline for a wine industry that has lost hundreds of millions of dollars to wildfires in recent years. But a joint investigation by FERN and the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal last year found that the farm pass program systematically put workers’ health and safety at risk.
Smoke from wildfires can be up to 10 times more toxic than car exhaust, and farmworkers have repeatedly said their employers failed to provide them with the safety equipment they needed , in violation of state law. Sonoma also did not collect reliable information on the number of agricultural workers inside its evacuation zones, which means that first responders did not know how many workers were present in these zones at a time. given.
On Tuesday, Sonoma opted to formalize its farm pass system, which has operated on an ad hoc basis for six years. Under its new scheme, farms can still apply for a pass, but pass holders will only be allowed to enter the mandatory wildfire evacuation zone to carry out urgent farm work. . This includes evacuating and feeding animals, irrigating crops, and powering emergency generators, but it does not include harvesting or sowing crops. FERN’s investigation found that at least 44% of farm passes issued by Sonoma in 2020 were distributed to vineyards for harvesting grapes.
Representatives of Sonoma’s wine industry blasted the county’s decision. “It was an incredibly bad decision by the Supervisory Board!” John Segale, spokesperson for Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees (SonomaWISE), said in an email to Ag Insider on Wednesday. “If you don’t allow the wine community access to areas deemed safe, there will be tremendous economic hardship in Sonoma County.” The wine industry created Segale’s group, SonomaWISE, in response to a local campaign advocating for better pay and protection for farmworkers, and the organization has been accused of coercing workers into participating in demonstrations supporting the industry.
Under the new program, Farm Pass holders will also be required to complete a fire safety and worker training course, and training courses must be conducted in the participant’s preferred language, including languages native people spoken by many Sonoma farm workers. They will only be able to enter the mandatory evacuation zone during daylight hours, as long as the Sonoma Sheriff’s Department determines it is safe.
County supervisors have rejected demands by labor advocates to give farmworkers hazard pay and disaster insurance, which would compensate them for working in dangerous fire conditions and support them if crops on which they depend are destroyed. However, the county still seems to be considering both proposals. Earlier this summer, it allocated $1 million to explore a new program that would provide disaster insurance for farm workers, and another $2 million for a disaster fund for survivors of the North American wildfires. county.
Fueled by climate change and decades of land mismanagement, California’s wildfires are intensifying and accelerating, and farming communities across the state are scrambling to save their crops and livestock. They’re also weighing who should bear the brunt of the risk, and farm passes are increasingly part of their solution.
At least half of California’s counties have launched their own farm pass program or are in the process of creating one, although the scope of the programs may vary from county to county. While some counties prohibit farmers from harvesting crops inside mandatory evacuation zones, several still allow it, including Sonoma’s neighbor Napa County. In an email to FERN on Wednesday, Napa County Agriculture Commissioner Tracy Cleveland said Napa “will likely continue” to issue passes for harvesting activities, provided it “is considered a harvesting activity.” essential during the disaster”.