Hundreds of farm families could be homeless this summer

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by ERIC WILKINSON / KING 5 News

KING5.com

Posted on June 12, 2014 at 5:15 PM

Updated Thursday, Jun 12 at 5:45 PM

SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash. -- The strawberry harvest has come early this summer at Skagit County's Sakuma Farms. The fields are full of fruit, but they’re low on pickers. It’s a problem that could turn costly for both migrant families and farm owners.

"Our challenge is to get enough people to finish the cropping," said farm owner Steve Sakuma. "Am I concerned? Yes. Right now there is risk."

Last year, berry pickers picked a fight with Sakuma, staging historic strikes, demanding better pay and working conditions.  They cost the farm about a million dollars in lost fruit. This season, tough, things are different.

"I think people are reading a lot into it. It’s just been an economic decision," said Sakuma.

For years workers have come to the fourth generation farm with their families during the harvest, but Sakuma now says because of increased attention brought on by the strikes, he has to stick to federal housing regulations. Sakuma used to be able to look the other way if a family of four lived rent free in one of his dorms meant for two. Now, he says he can't. That means there’s not enough room for both the workers and their families to live. The farm needs about 500 pickers this summer, but legally there is only housing for 400. Those with families likely won’t have anywhere to live.

"We think this is retaliation for the strike," said Ramon Torres, a former Sakuma worker. "We will have children sleeping in cars. That isn't right."

Steve Sakuma has sunk about $250,000 into upgrading the dorms for his workers.  He rejects the retaliation claim, but says he can no longer turn a blind eye to overpopulated cabins. Plus, he says, the pickers must reap what they’ve sown.

"Look who you’re hurting. You’re hurting yourself because if this is your source of income, we can provide you the best source of income," he said.

If the migrant workers can’t bring their families with them, however, they may not come at all. That means more money left to rot in the fields, another bitter harvest for the farm.

About 60 pickers worked the strawberry fields Thursday afternoon. Steve Sakuma says he might bring unmarried pickers up from his California farm, if the need isn't filled soon by locals. There is also talk of constructing camps for the migrant families with running water and bathrooms.

"This is a community issue," he said. "We have to find ways to work together."

For now, labor organizers are planning protests and boycotts of Sakuma products, a situation ripe for unrest.

"We’re fighting for a just future for farm workers," said Torres.

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