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Ready to break ground for the Sage Bluff farmworker housing are some of the many people involved in the project (from left): Ken Blodgett of Blodgett Construction; Chelan County Commissioner Ron Walter; Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League; Janet Abbett, CTED; and Jesse Lane, Growers League. (Good Fruit Grower)

Construction of a new housing complex for ­seasonal agricultural workers in Malaga, Washington, is a demonstration of the Washington Growers League’s commitment to actively ­solving industry problems, says the league’s executive director Mike Gempler.

“We deal exclusively with labor and employment, and there’s great concern about having an adequate number of people to do the work in seasonal agriculture. That’s the number-one concern, and housing is a big part of that.”

Gempler was speaking during a groundbreaking ceremony for the league’s Sage Bluff development. “You can’t just talk about the problems. At some point, you have to take some action to solve them.”

The Growers League spent four years planning the housing project, meeting with growers to assess their needs, and securing the permits and funding, before construction could begin. The facility is expected to open this fall, providing safe and secure housing for 126 farmworkers. The location, at Dixie Lane, is not far from the Stemilt Hill cherry-growing district.

Gempler said the league’s partners in the project were also action oriented and had a desire to invest in agriculture and its work force. Among the entities involved were the Chelan County Port District, which sold the 7.4-acre site to the league, and the Washington State Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, which provided a $2 million grant and a $500,000 30-year loan from its Housing Trust Fund. The rest of the funding for the $3.2-million project came from private sources.

The league signed a partnership agreement with the Office of Rural and Farmworker Housing in Yakima, a nonprofit advocate group that shares the goal of creating additional quality housing for farmworkers and is the project developer.

The Housing Authority of Chelan County and the City of Wenatchee are also developing seasonal housing on an adjoining piece of land of a similar size.

Jesse Lane, housing program manager for the Growers League, said neighbors had concerns about having seasonal worker housing in the area, but the league addressed their concerns and the Malaga Community Council is now supportive of the project.

Janet Abbott, farmworker housing program manager at the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, said it’s an innovative project that will serve as a model for how seasonal housing can be provided in a way that’s practical, sustainable, and benefits the whole community.

“It shows what can happen when people commit to an idea and are willing to work together to make it happen,” she commented. “But what’s most important is that it recognizes the importance of farmworkers to the ag industry, to our economy, and to the culture of our communities. Each and every one of them—like everyone else—deserves a safe and decent place to come home to at the end of the day.”

The new housing facility will have 21 air-conditioned and heated 400-square-foot cabins designed to accommodate six people each. There will also be centralized laundry, shower, and cooking facilities, and a playground.

15-year contracts

The facility will operate on a kind of time-share basis, Lane said. Fifteen-year contracts are being offered to growers who want to lease beds for their workers at certain times during the season. Lane said many of the beds are already taken and growers interested in leasing space should contact him soon. The cost per bed is $9 per night, which should cover operating costs and repayment of the $500,000 loan.

He expects that the housing will be occupied for at least six months of the year—from cherry harvest to apple harvest—but it can remain open for up to ten months of the year and still qualify as seasonal housing. The development, which will include a home for a year-round manager, will occupy only half the site. There are plans to build a similar development on the other half, doubling the bed space, once the first phase is up and running ­successfully.

Lane said he expects the housing will help fill a great need for housing for farmworkers throughout the greater Wenatchee area. A 350-bed tent camp at Pangborn Airport in East Wenatchee, which has operated since 2000, was scheduled to close after the 2008 season. However, Kirk Mayer, manager of the Washington Growers Clearing House Association, said CTED and Douglas County Port District, which owns the land, are discussing an extension.

Gempler expressed thanks to the people who work in Washington’s orchards and farms. “So many of them are just great people and they work really hard, and I appreciate what they do. I just hope they keep coming here and finding this a beneficial thing to do for them and their families, and we continue to have this mutually ­beneficial relationship.”