Farmers are Leaders in Employee Housing

Written By: Brytann Busick
Published: December 3, 2018

Everyone is concerned about housing in Sonoma County. Rents are high, there isn’t enough market rate housing, Measure N failed, and members of our workforce who depend on affordable housing are worried and frustrated

Sonoma County’s thriving vineyards, farms, and ranches rely on agricultural employees. However, many farmers and ranchers struggle to have enough farm labor. The labor shortage in Sonoma County, undoubtedly, is in part a reflection of the overall housing shortage. Many people don’t realize, though, that much of the agriculture industry provides housing for its employees.

Farm Bureau President and co-owner of Dutton Ranch, Steve Dutton, said that he doesn’t think the general public has any idea that the agriculture industry provides housing for its workforce.

“The agriculture industry is probably the only one that provides housing for its employees,” Dutton said. “I don’t know of another one that does.”

In fact, a 2017 survey conducted by the Sonoma County Winegrowers showed that about 30% of grape growers in the county provide workforce housing. If the agriculture industry did not provide housing for employees, they would be competing with other wage earners in Sonoma county for an already limited supply of housing.

“A lot of the work is seasonal so it’s hard for people to find housing while they are here on a temporary basis,” Dutton said. “We all know rents are super expensive here in Sonoma County.”

Dutton Ranch, which has vineyards and apple orchards, has provided housing for employees since the 1970s.

“My dad completed the first dormitory style employee housing in 1970 when I was just three years old,” Dutton said. “Then my brother and I completed the next dormitory house in 1995 and finished the third in 2005. We hope to break ground on our next housing structure, which will have 37 beds, soon.”

Dutton said that it has been a slow process to get the new facility built and that he thinks the slow pace creates a barrier to other producers to be able to provide housing for their employees. He said that the biggest challenges to providing employee housing are overreaching regulations and excessive building costs.

“Our housing is inspected by State of California and Federal Department of Labor staff and there are annual fees,” Dutton said.

The -dormitory style houses are primarily built, and house guest workers hired through the federal government’s H-2A program, which allows the agriculture industry to employ foreign guest workers for jobs that last as long as 10 months. Local winegrape growers have increasingly turned to the program as a way to address a short supply of available vineyard labor.

“I think we are going to see less and less people who are here for full-time, year-round work and therefore, the agriculture industry is going to rely more heavily on H-2A guest workers,” Dutton said. “I think it’s important to note that employees who work on farms and ranches aren’t taking jobs away from people who want them and not taking housing away from people that need it.”

Dutton said that as a part of H-2A, he must advertise job postings in four states before soliciting employees from out of the country.

“No one applies,” Dutton said. “In all my years doing H-2A we haven’t had a single response. So, by providing housing for our H-2A employees, it is a win-win, we aren’t contributing to housing problem in Sonoma County and we have the employees we need to continue farming year after year.”

Dutton compared the guest worker dormitory style housing provided to H-2A employees for free, to college dorms.

“They have three- and four-man bedrooms, community bathrooms, and a community kitchen,” Dutton said. “Essentially, we provide the bed, kitchen, bathroom and they provide the rest.”

Dutton said that the H-2A guest workers are very appreciative of the housing and treat it well.

“By investing in housing that is built well and will last allows us to invest in our employees and in our own businesses in a sustainable way,” Dutton said. “I think this provides equity for our employees,” Dutton said.

In total, Dutton Ranch has 94 beds for farm employees in dormitory-style housing. In addition, they have 15 family-style homes that house year-round employees. Each house has 2-3 bedrooms and 1-3 baths.

“We rent our family homes to foremen, tractor drivers, key personnel, year-round employees, many of whom have families,” Dutton said. “The base rent starts at $700. Housing is factored into the overall employment package at Dutton Ranch.”

Dutton said that he doesn’t think people picture anything nice when they imagine farm employee housing.

“I think people probably picture shacks,” Dutton said. “They probably don’t realize how nice the housing is. It’s not some beat-up, run-down facility.”

Dutton said that the latest house built on the ranch, an 1800 sq. ft., three-bedroom, two-bathroom with granite countertops, custom cabinets, and tiled walk in showers, cost $250,000 to build and is rented to a family for only $700 a month.

“Agriculture is doing its part to provide affordable housing as an industry,” Dutton said. “Really, I think agriculture has been doing this for as long as there have been farms, I think this isn’t something we woke up yesterday and started doing it.”

Dutton said that he knows of many other producers in Sonoma County that provide housing. Bob Muelrath is one of them.

Muelrath, who grew up farming and has been on his family’s piece of property on Walker Avenue for 72 years, said that he doesn’t think people realize just how much housing is provided by agriculture industry.

“Many people in Sonoma County have no idea what agriculture is, let alone that we provide housing for our employees, and always have,” Muelrath said.

Muelrath has been a Farm Bureau member since 1975, when he took over his family’s dairy. He was on the Board for 10 years, served as President for two years, and has served on the Board of the Foundation. He now raises beef cattle and pumpkins. When the farm required five full-time employees Muelrath said he was able to house them all.

Muelrath’s Farm Manager, Cesar Perez, has lived and worked on the farm for 19 years.

“Cesar has been here so long all his kids were raised here,” Muelrath said. “I have had other employees who lived here 20 years whose kids are grown but will still come back and see me.”

Muelrath, whose family has always housed employees on their property, said that it is important to him to be able to provide employee housing.

“Housing is so expensive that it’s difficult for employees to find housing,” Muelrath said. “I think living on the ranch makes a better work environment for employees because they are near their family and can go home for lunch.”

He explained that providing housing on the farm offers employees many non-monetary benefits because his employees don’t have a commute, can be near their families, and when he had the dairy, his employees received meat and milk.

“Especially for a dairy, our employees have to get up early in the morning, so it’s easier on them to not have to commute.”

He said he thinks that if the agriculture industry wasn’t providing housing for its employees, they would be contributing even more to the housing shortage that already exists in Sonoma County. Now, housing is so difficult to get that it is even more beneficial for an employer to provide housing because it secures their workforce.

“If ag didn’t provide housing, we probably wouldn’t be able to find consistent workforce,” Muelrath said. “Therefore, I think it’s important that you provide good housing.”

He said that whether the housing is a mobile home or apartment-style housing, it’s important that it is maintained.

“Mostly, across the board I think farmers and ranchers provide good quality housing,” Muelrath said. “I think overall, people are more aware today that it is important to provide housing. For a farmer or rancher, labor is hard to get and for laborers, housing is hard to come by.”

Dutton said that he agrees that providing good quality housing is important.

“It helps employees see that we appreciate them and sends a message that they are valued,” Dutton said. “It creates loyalty from them because they know they have a nice place to live when they come to work for us.”

Muelrath said that he thinks if all the ag employees who currently have housing provided through their employer didn’t have it anymore that rent would probably go up even more in Sonoma County.

“We need agriculture employee housing, we need to secure our workforce,” Muelrath said. “Providing housing for our employees is one of the best ways to do it.”

Whether it is a single-family home for a long-time employee and their family or a dormitory style house for seasonal labor, whether you are providing housing for one employee or one hundred, agriculture has and will continue to provide housing for its workforce, which is a benefit to not only employers and employees, but also to Sonoma County overall.

In the coming year, the Sonoma County Farm Bureau will continue to collaborate with the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation and other ag and housing organizations to ensure that employee housing remains a priority.

Related Articles

Premium Members

To represent, protect and advance the social, economic and educational interests of the farmers and ranchers of Sonoma County.