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Faces of the Climate Crisis: Sonoma’s farm workers

Editor’s Note: This is the first of three articles that will explore the climate change crisis and its impact on underrepresented groups. The series will run on Fridays.

When Sonoma Valley resident Luis Davila came home after working during the fires of 2017, there was no place on his body spared from the ash raining down from the sky.

It infiltrated the bottoms of his sleeves, permeated the opening in back of his shirt and, even though he wore a mask, coated tissues in mucus that had turned black.

“You look in the mirror and it's like, ‘Did I turn into dirt?’” Davila said.

A Boyes Hot Springs resident, Davila is a vineyard manager who leads a team of 19 farm workers. It’s their labor that carries the wine industry on its back, meaning they remain on the front lines through wildfires, chemical use and extreme heat.

But organizations and laws, since the 2017 complex fires, have worked to improve conditions for farm workers to provide them better personal protective equipment and better pay, including a new push by North Bay Jobs with Justice to introduce hazard pay.

As the amount of carbon in the atmosphere rises higher each year, causing more heat to be stored in weather systems and creating chaos in local ecosystems across the globe — the burden of the climate crisis falls heavily on vulnerable communities like farm workers, who are the least able to protect themselves.

Through fire, heat and smoke

When the 2017 fires raged over North Bay counties, Davila and his crew worked 1.5 miles from the Atlas Fire at a Napa vineyard, he said. The fire would burn more than 50,000 acres, destroy more than 700 homes and lasted 20 days. Gusts of wind up to 28 mph fed the storm as it moved south over hills and prairies.

“The wind just took it to the other side,” Davila said. “But then again, you're with a worry that the wind might change all of a sudden. You don't know if you're in danger because there's not going to be a way out.”

During the worst days of smoke, Davila said he could only see 500 yards in any directions, sometimes less as the smoke acted like a thick layer of fog. A 2020 study by Stanford University found that “wildfire smoke causing [air quality index] of 150 for several days is equivalent to about seven cigarettes a day if someone were outside the whole time.”

During the worst weeks of 2017, the local AQI measurements recorded scores above 400.

In the aftermath of his evacuation in 2017, Davila took classes to train in wildfire response to better prepare himself and protect the crew he oversees.

“I've taken a few different security trainings. And the first thing you have to do is like, ‘Where's the first issue? Where are the exits?’” he said. “I'm not going to be exposing myself or exposing others if there's danger out there.”

When dry lightning sparked fires throughout the North Bay in 2020, Davila called off his crew and told them to head home.

But it’s not just smoke that farm workers have to worry about.

“Higher temperatures create imbalances in natural systems, causing more outbreaks and damage from unwanted pests and weeds. This leads to increased pesticide use as there are more pests to manage,” according to a report by Sharalyn Peterson, Healthy Wildlife & Water Program Manager at the Northwest Center for Alternatives to Pesticides.

Sonoma County became the fourth local government agency in the country to ban the use of synthetic weedkillers on public property in 2019, which specifically targeted the carcinogen glyphosate, the main ingredient in Roundup, and has been linked to non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

“Most vineyards in the area like apply fungicides, pesticides and Roundup, and so we know that has an impact on the body,” said Davida Sotelo Escobedo (they/them), the communications and research coordinator for North Bay Jobs with Justice. “And there just isn’t any good data that shows how much farm workers in Sonoma are experiencing.”

It’s not just about climate

But the climate crisis can’t be viewed only through the lens of environmental health for the laborers of vineyards and agriculture, as Davila and other view the fires as a threat to the their job stability.

But the climate crisis doesn’t only present a threat to the safety or health of farm workers. For Davila and his crew of 19 workers, it threatens their job security, their ability to afford rent and support their families.

Unlike vineyard owners, if a crop is affected by smoke taint, the farm workers for that vineyard are not entitled to lost wages of pay from the failure of the crop while vineyard owners may reap millions in government payouts, according to Escobedo. Sonoma County vineyards lost $152 million due to smoke taint in 2020, according to Sonoma County Winegrowers, and approximately 30% of grapes went unpicked due to smoke damage.

Escobedo said many farm workers earn a significant amount of their money during the harvest season, which often aligns with major fires from August through November. This can put farm workers in a precarious position: pay rent or subject oneself to dangerous conditions.

“If there’s a fire happening and your boss tells you, you have to go ... harvest grapes, and you have a rent to pay and you have food to put on the table. The reality is it’s not really a choice at that point,” Escobedo said.

With weather systems becoming more and more perilous to laborers who work outside, the climate crisis and its accompanying disasters don’t just destabilize ecosystems — they destabilize households.

“It is worrying because you don't know the next day if there's going to be work or not,” Davila said.

Harvesting solutions

Escobedo is now lobbying lawmakers to provide compensation to farm workers who lose job opportunities as a result of climate disasters.

The California state legislature passed AB 1313, a bill that would provide overtime to farm workers if they worked more than eight hours a day. H2-A workers, who are temporary agriculture workers with a visa, will see increases to their wages by $2.74 hourly jump from 2020 to $17.51 per hour. And in April of last year, SB 606 expanded Cal/OSHA Authority and enforcement which would benefit many farm workers.

Still, North Bay Jobs for Justice is pushing for more resources and inspectors for Cal/OSHA in the North Bay, which Escobedo said are inadequately staffed for the number of work sites in the North Bay.

“The regional body of Cal OSHA here is the American Canyon region, so there's five counties and the last time that I saw, there were 10 inspectors that cover those five counties,” Escobedo said. “Of those 10 inspectors, one of them speaks Spanish, and none of them speak any indigenous languages.”

This all represents a structure for wineries and vineyards to escape accountability during the harvest season, they said, adding that vineyard owners will hire labor management companies and labor contractors to “kick accountability somewhere else.”

In response to what North Bay Jobs with Justice sees as a lack of quality information and resources for farm workers, they have lobbied to add AQI detectors for individuals working at job sites.

“Part of the role of this group of community safety observers or training. Folks are going to be trained to have like these little purple air quality monitors,” Escobedo said. “So when they’re going out into the field and going out to vineyards, you're able to gather that data,” Escobedo said.

But justice goes beyond providing safe working conditions for workers. As Escobedo emphasized earlier, providing workers the option to not work and still recoup payment for lost work is essential to providing the job security needed as climate crises become more regular.

“You're working conditions where the rest of the population was told to leave this area because it's so hazardous,” Escobedo said. “And if you don't want to be putting your body on the line in that way, you should have the choice to not go back to work and still receive disaster insurance regardless.”

Contact Chase Hunter at chase.hunter@sonomanews.com and follow @Chase_HunterB on Twitter.

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