Protecting Our Essential Farmworker Families During COVID-19
Ellen Brokaw, Farmworker Housing Advocate, Calls for Community Support to Meet $250,000 Goal for the Farmworker Household Assistance Program
Through eerily smoky days, rain, scorching heat waves, and even a pandemic, our farmworkers are a steady and essential workforce for Ventura County. Despite how critical their work is to our most core human function – the consumption of food – they are often invisible to most of us and their struggle to keep their housing is a critical issue facing our community.
We sat down [virtually] with one of the leading voices for farmworker housing, Ellen Brokaw, chair of the Brokaw Ranch Co. and co-founder of House Farm Workers!, to find out how the Farmworker Household Assistance Program (FHAP) came to be and how Ventura County residents can ensure some of our most vulnerable community members can receive critical financial support in the time of COVID-19.
A Life in Agriculture – A Life With Farmworkers
Ellen has been involved in farming her entire adult life starting when her husband began planting avocado seeds in coffee cans in their backyard. From there, the Brokaw family began a farming business which included an avocado nursery, growing trees that are planted in orchards all over southern California, and an orchard property where she currently lives, with about 200 acres of avocados, lemons, other citrus, as well as mangoes, lychee, and other more experimental crops.
Ellen started out by taking care of their farms’ accounting and personnel. The experiences she had and relationships built with the farmworkers in her own business led to her passion for broader farmworker advocacy. “The concern that started very early on for me was farmworker housing. I could never figure out what to do about it until the Ag Futures Alliance came along,” Ellen recalled.
Evolution of Farmworker Advocacy in Ventura County
The Ag Futures Alliance was a collaboration between county members, farmers, farmworkers, and community activists which primarily worked on white papers. The group released a report in 2002 highlighting the plight of the farmworker in Ventura County, which rallied significant support around the issue. From this came a sponsored farmworker housing summit in Santa Paula, where they commissioned a film highlighting the intense struggles of farmworkers, bringing this issue to the attention of 300 Ventura County residents. At the end of the day, half of the entire summit’s attendance had signed up to work further on supporting farmworker livelihoods, producing the House Farm Workers! program with Ellen as the founding chair.
Ellen explained, “With committees in 6 cities throughout Ventura County, House Farm Workers! focuses on education and advocacy. We put a lot of work into ensuring policies and regulations are in place that will support safe and affordable farmworker housing. When there is a farmworker housing project proposed, we gather the community to advocate for it.”
“Miracle Group” and the “Friday COVID-19 Group”
Back in 2015, Garland Reiter of Reiter Affiliated Companies in Oxnard convened individuals from three farming companies (Reiter, Brokaw Nursery and Good Farms), Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), and Mixteco Indigena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) to discuss the rights and needs of farmworkers. This informal organization, which adopted the name “Miracle Group”, has worked together ever since to bring about systemic changes and address pressing issues as they arise. One result of their collaboration is the Farmworker Resource Program (FRP), housed in the County’s Department of Health and Human Services, which helps farmworkers and their employers solve work-related issues.
In March 2020, the Miracle Group convened a larger group, now dubbed the “Friday COVID-19 Group”, to discuss the specific needs of farmworkers as COVID-19 began to ravage the local economy and threaten public health. They started out presenting informational pieces for employers about how to protect their agricultural employees during the pandemic. They supplied masks, put up flyers, and worked with the agriculture commissioner and county executive office to issue identification cards for farmworkers to carry as a way of protecting their immigration status as “essential workers.”
Birth of the Farmworker Household Assistance Program (FHAP)
As COVID-19’s impact continued to grow, the Friday Group started to see a new threat to the farmworker community – loss of their existing housing as work and wages were impacted by the pandemic. Ellen Brokaw of Brokaw Ranch Company and House Farm Workers!, Genevieve Flores-Haro of MICOP, Linda Braunschweiger of Housing Trust Fund Ventura County and House Farm Workers!, A. Irene de Barracicua of Lideres Campesinas, Alondra Serna of House Farm Workers!, and Yissel Barajas of Reiter Affiliated Companies formed a subcommittee which hatched a plan to raise funds in partnership with the Ventura County Community Foundation (VCCF) to supply small grants, administered by the County’s Farmworker Resource Program (FRP), to eligible farmworkers for rent and basic household expenses. With that, the Farmworker Housing Assistance Program was born.
Ellen shared that VCCF was the ideal choice to hold the FHAP funds given their decades-long track record as a trusted fiscal steward of efforts to tackle Ventura County’s most challenging community issues. Vanessa Bechtel, VCCF President, and Executive Director stated, “Ellen Brokaw is a prime example of what makes Ventura County special – she is both fearless and generous in supporting some of the most vulnerable among us.”
With a fiscal sponsor, robust partnerships, support of the County, and a threatening pandemic, the FHAP began taking donations in August with a goal of $250,000 and a promise by the County of Ventura to match this goal. To date, FHAP has already raised over $100,000 coming largely from the agricultural community itself. “It is clear that this is only going to be a drop in the bucket of how much support [farmworker families] need. We will continue fundraising throughout the year,” said Ellen Brokaw.
Farmworkers in Ventura County and across the globe are “absolutely essential”, says Ellen. Ventura County grows more than 100 different types of crops, mostly labor-intensive specialty crops requiring a lot of skill and personal hands-on work. This group, although marginalized in our society, are not helpless nor victims. Farmworkers are incredibly skilled, hardworking, and dedicated to providing food for the community and their families.
In explaining why Ventura County residents should consider supporting FHAP, Ellen said, “Farmworkers are part of our community, their kids go to the same schools, they shop at the same places but still, we don’t recognize their struggles. This is a time when those who can, should help those who need.”
About the Farmworker Household Assistance Program (FHAP:)
Farmworker Household Assistance Program (FHAP) is a collaboration between agricultural employers and farmworker advocates working in partnership with the Ventura County Community Foundation, House Farm Workers!, the FarmWorker Resource Program, and the County of Ventura. Every penny of your donation will go directly to farmworker families who are struggling to pay rent and other essential bills. For more information about FHAP or to make a donation that will be matched by the County of Ventura, go to vccf.org/fhap.