In wine country, Sonoma tightens limits on farm work during wildfires

After a year of raucous protests and stakeholder meetings, Sonoma County announced it had standardized and reformed its “ag pass” program, which allows farms to bring workers into evacuated areas during wildfires when other residents have been told to flee.

The county’s 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 board restricted growers’ ability to harvest wine grapes during wildfires — a move that could help protect thousands of farmworkers who work through the region’s climate disasters every year but which could increase the harvest losses of vineyards.

The decision was applauded by local labor activists, who have urged the county to radically overhaul the program. “Workers have been organizing for over a year now, and the fact that this even came to the table and passed is only because of their hard work,” said Davida Sotelo Escobedo, a spokesperson for North Bay Jobs With Justice, a labor advocacy organization. “It’s a powerful step forward.”

Sonoma launched their ag pass program in 2017 in the aftermath of the Tubbs Fire, which killed 22 people and threatened farms and vineyards throughout the region. It has continued each year since then.

In letting farmworkers work in evacuated areas, some farmers and government officials view it as a lifeline for a wine industry that’s lost hundreds of millions of dollars to wildfires in the past few years. But a joint investigation by FERN and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting last year found the ag pass program systematically put workers’ health and safety at risk.

Wildfire smoke can be up to 10 times more toxic than car exhaust, and farmworkers have repeatedly said their employers didn’t provide them with the safety gear they need in violation of state law. Sonoma also didn’t reliably collect information on the number of farmworkers inside its evacuation zones, which means first responders did not know how many workers were present in these zones at any given time.

On Tuesday, Sonoma chose to formalize its ag pass system, which has been operating in an ad hoc capacity for the past six years. Under its new program, farms can still apply for a pass, but pass holders will only be allowed to enter a wildfire’s mandatory evacuation zone to conduct urgent agricultural work. That includes evacuating and feeding animals, irrigating crops, and fueling emergency generators — but it does not include harvesting or sowing crops. FERN’s investigation found that at least 44 percent of the ag passes Sonoma issued in 2020 were distributed to vineyards for harvesting grapes.

Representatives of Sonoma’s wine industry have lambasted the county’s decision. “This was a stunningly bad decision by the Board of Supervisors!” said John Segale, spokesperson for Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees (SonomaWISE), in an email to Ag Insider on Wednesday. “If you don’t allow access for the wine community to areas deemed to be 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 attending protests supporting the industry.

Under the new program, ag pass holders will also be required to complete a fire and worker-safety training course, and the training courses must be provided in attendees’ preferred language—including the indigenous languages spoken by many of Sonoma’s farmworkers. They will only be able to enter the mandatory evacuation zone during daylight hours, provided that Sonoma’s sheriff’s department determines it’s safe.

County supervisors rejected labor advocates’ demands to give farmworkers hazard pay and disaster insurance, which would compensate them for working through dangerous fire conditions and support them if the harvests they rely on are destroyed. However, the county appears to still be considering both proposals. Earlier this summer, it allocated $1 million to explore a new program that would offer disaster insurance to farmworkers, and another $2 million for a disaster fund for the county’s wildfire survivors.

Fueled by climate change and decades of land mismanagement, California’s wildfires are getting bigger and faster, and farming communities throughout the state are scrambling to save their harvests and livestock. They’re also weighing who should bear the brunt of the risks, and ag passes are increasingly becoming part of their solution.

At least half of California’s counties have either launched their own ag pass program or are in the process of creating one, though the programs can vary in scope 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 Ag Commissioner Tracy Cleveland said that Napa “would likely continue” to issue passes for harvest activities, provided that it “was deemed an essential activity during the disaster.”