Sonoma County ag workers receive financial support to help displacement after fires

Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers

BILL SWINDELL,

More than 150 agricultural workers who were displaced from their homes as a result of October’s wildfires started to receive financial support Monday from a charity backed by two local groups.

The workers and their families will receive more than $430,000 in support in the form of rent payments paid directly to their landlords and gift cards to replace household items. The Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation and the Sonoma County Farm Bureau teamed up to support the special fund in the aftermath of the fires. It has raised more than $550,000.

The effort comes as the wine industry — the dominant agricultural industry in the county — is finding that worker housing has emerged as the biggest challenge in the aftermath of the fires that destroyed more than 5,000 homes in Sonoma County. Only about a dozen wineries suffered significant damage during the blazes in the entire North Coast and the vineyards in the path of the blazes were relatively unscathed. Tasting rooms, however, suffered a tremendous drop in visitors in October near the end of the tourist season.

The foundation, relaunched last year as a nonprofit by the Sonoma County Winegrowers trade group, had been working prior to the fires on social issues affecting the local 5,000 full-time vineyard workers, almost all of whom are Latino. It had previously covered a funding gap that would have delayed construction of Ortiz Plaza, a 30-unit complex for farmworkers west of Larkfield.

The natural disaster created more of an onus to act quickly given the emergency plight of the workers, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Winegrowers, which represents 1,800 grape growers in the county.

Contributions to funds ranged from $50,000 checks to small donations of $25 with all of the monies going directly to workers.

“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 said.

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.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.