Skip to main content.

As California’s Wine Country burns more often, ag workers there face perilous future

As California’s Wine Country burns more often, ag workers there face perilous future

Picture of Noah Abrams
(Photo by USDA via Flickr/Creative Commons)
(Photo by USDA via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Between 2017 and 2020 Northern California’s Wine Country was battered by successive years of devastating wildfires. Images of vineyard workers toiling under smokey skies circulated widely. Various labor and civil society groups organized to ensure agricultural workers were not forced to work in unsafe conditions — smothered by smoke and standing in the path of blazing fires. 

Because of the nature of agriculture though, many vineyards, orchards, and farms needed workers to tend and harvest crops in smoky conditions hazardous to human health. As extreme heat and wildfires look set to continue in California this year, questions remain as to whether workers in Sonoma County will have to choose between a paycheck or their health.

In 2017, the first of several years of devastating wildfires, agriculture alone accounted for nearly a billion dollars in economic activity in Sonoma County. That same year Sonoma County introduced an “ag pass” system, which allows farm and vineyard owners and workers into areas under mandatory evacuation to continue agricultural work. 

According to a recent study released by researchers at UC Davis, even healthy individuals are at risk of developing lung disease from exposure to wildfire smoke. “Compared with these later samples, blood collected during the wildfire season showed significantly elevated levels of inflammatory markers,” the study found. Researchers also showed the activation of immune cells called dendritic cells. 

According to North Bay Jobs with Justice, a newly formed advocacy group which has been pushing for greater protections for ag workers, many vineyard workers in Sonoma County feel they can’t refuse to work in smoky conditions and in evacuation zones, for fear of losing their job. According to the group, workers are subject to strenuous conditions, oftentimes running for hours to maximize earnings because of pay by weight or quantity schemes. Investigating the threat to worker health is central to this project’s goals, as well as investigating what knowledge the workforce has of the dangers wildfire conditions present to their health.

With a vineyard workforce that ranges between 6,000 and 11,000 according to estimates, Sonoma County’s agricultural sector is large and diverse, and includes over 1,000 workers on temporary visas according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. What access to health care do the various groups of workers have? What type of care or provider do they have access to? How many workers seek treatment for smoke inhalation or complications from smoke inhalation? Who works in what conditions? Are they provided protective equipment while on the job? 

For my 2022 California Fellowship, I hope to investigate the effects these hazardous conditions are having on workers in Sonoma County’s agricultural sector. Through interviews with workers, health care providers, local officials, worker advocates, and agricultural employers I aim to examine what precautions, actions, and treatments are taken by and for agricultural workers. I plan to examine admissions records at various health care facilities, and explore how patients are diagnosed after suffering from the effects of wildfire smoke inhalation. 

I hope to take a comprehensive look at agricultural worker health, looking into the role of ag worker advocacy groups like North Bay JwJ, UFW, Corazon Healdsburg, and the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation. I also plan to examine the role of industry groups, like the newly formed Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees, which disputes many of the claims and demands made by North Bay Jobs with Justice. 

My first task will be to contact advocacy groups like North Bay Jobs with Justice and UFW to hear about the health and health care of workers from groups that speak directly for agricultural workers. I plan to speak with a cross section of workers about working in hazardous conditions and the effects on their health. Sonoma County has a large Latino population — around a quarter of the county’s population, according to the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. A large proportion work in labor and service industries. It is also not uncommon for college-educated white workers to work in agriculture in Sonoma County. Examining the disparities in health outcomes, workplace health and safety protections, and health care accessibility between these two groups will be an important area of focus for my reporting.

As part of a small radio news team, so often much of my reporting is reactive, but as a fellow, my goal is to proactively inform residents and listeners about the effects wildfire smoke can have on their health, highlight who has access to health care, and hopefully add information to the conversation for advocates pushing for protections for at-risk workers.


The Center for Health Journalism’s two-day symposium on domestic violence will provide reporters with a roadmap for covering this public health epidemic with nuance and sensitivity. The first day will take place on the USC campus on Friday, March 17. The Center has a limited number of $300 travel stipends for California journalists coming from outside Southern California and a limited number of $500 travel stipends for those coming from out of state. Journalists attending the symposium will be eligible to apply for a reporting grant of $2,000 to $10,000 from our Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund. Find more info here!


Follow Us



CHJ Icon