More than 150 Sonoma County agricultural workers and their families displaced by the October fires will begin receiving upwards of a half-million dollars from a recently established housing-recovery fund, the two agriculture trade groups behind it announced Monday.
The Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation Wildfire Housing Support Fund, set up by the foundation and Sonoma County Farm Bureau, on Dec. 4 started distributing more than $430,000 to help with costs of living elsewhere, incurred damage to their homes or lost wages during the historic disaster. The money is being given as Visa gift cards to purchase new household items, food and supplies and to help pay utilities.
To support the need for temporary or new housing, funds will be paid by the foundation directly to landlords for rent.
The fund launched on Oct. 18 and has raised more than $550,000 since it was established, according to Sonoma County Winegrowers, which oversees the foundation. Once the immediate needs are met, any remaining funds will be used by the foundation to address the long-term need for affordable housing for ag workers in Sonoma County, the group said.
“Our ag workers are the heart and soul of Sonoma County agriculture and wine community so we wanted to do all we can to lessen the impact the fires has caused them,” said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers and executive director of Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation. “This fund was specifically established to help any ag worker in Sonoma County and it is very gratifying to know that our neighbors who work in the dairy, fruit, vegetable and grape industries are benefiting from the generosity and compassion of people from throughout the country and around the world.”
Donations to fund include contributions from charitable foundations, businesses, local community and general public. Gifts came from wineries in San Diego County, an area ravaged by wildfires a few years ago as well as from restaurants, wine bars and wine clubs.
“Last week, we had a family being evicted in December. They were displaced for a couple weeks and couldn’t make the December rent. We came in and paid it for them,” Kruse told the Press Democrat on Monday.
She added some workers were losing their rental housing to landlords whose own homes were destroyed by the fire and needed a place to live. The trade group is exploring other options for temporary housing, Kruse said, especially the use of recreational vehicles on extra space on vineyards lots.
Contributions have ranged from $50,000 to numerous individual donations of $100, $50 and $25. All of each donation to the fund, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, goes directly to support ag workers and their families in the county, according to the trade groups.
“It is our hope that these funds will eliminate a lot of anxiety and help re-establish households so the workers and their families can enjoy the holidays and quickly get their lives back to the new normal we are all now facing,” said Steve Dutton, president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau and a fifth-generation Sonoma County farmer. “The generosity and compassion of all who have contributed has been simply amazing and has exceeded all expectations.”
Sonoma County Winegrowers established Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation in 2002 to help fund educational workshops in Spanish for agricultural employees. The trade group relaunched it in January 2016, to focus on improving the lives of Sonoma County’s agricultural employees and their families, while ensuring Sonoma County remains a place where agricultural workers will continue to live, work and thrive.
Part of the new focus includes collaboration with community-based organizations and government agencies to identify existing resources, leverage available support and create new programs to assist local agricultural employees and their families. Targeted issues include health care, affordable housing, child care and education.
The foundation is managed by the Sonoma County Winegrowers with a 12-member board of directors comprised of agricultural leaders, vineyard owners, winery executives, and other Sonoma County community leaders.