1. Introduction

Just beyond Lee County's sandy beaches and thriving coastal communities lies some of the country's most productive farmland. This land produces vegetables and citrus fruit for much of the nation. The hired farmworkers who plant and pick these crops are an almost invisible part of our communities, and frequently live under conditions far below any reasonable standards.

Hired farmworkers have special housing needs because of the very nature of their work. Although the growing season is quite long in southwest Florida because of the warm climate, the planting and picking of fruits and vegetables still requires almost constant movement of the labor force. This daily movement throughout southwest Florida compounds the housing problems of people who already must migrate out of Florida each summer just to keep working.

The special housing needs of farmworkers in Lee County have not been studied in great detail; the two most relevant studies are about 15 years old. This report is the result of a study that was initiated by Lee County's Affordable Housing Committee to identify the current demand for (and unmet housing needs of) farmworkers in Lee County. An additional purpose of the study is to identify any opportunities for improving farmworker housing in the immediate future. The study was funded through the State Housing Initiatives Partnership.

Although certain well-known agricultural vistas such as gladiolus fields are all but extinct around Fort Myers today, other types of agriculture remain a major part of Lee County's economy and are actually increasing in importance. In addition to its look at Lee County, this report examines the agricultural industry in surrounding counties because there is a constant flow of workers across county lines. Also, farmworkers in nearby counties who cannot find suitable housing are finding Lee County's large stock of modest housing to be among their better choices.

This study focuses primarily on row crops and citrus because those agricultural sectors use a large number of migrant or seasonal farmworkers. Little attention is paid to timber, cattle, or ornamental plants because employment in those sectors is fairly uniform throughout the year. This study assesses current production levels of row crops and citrus, and summarizes the official projections and informed speculation about the future.

No actual counts of migrant or seasonal farmworkers in Lee County (or anywhere else) are available. However, the best estimates have been identified and are summarized here. This study then examines farmworker housing that is currently available, and assesses feasible alternatives for additional housing to meet the growing demand. Possible funding sources are identified. Regulatory constraints are also evaluated, and proposals to alleviate those constraints are presented.

This study concludes with recommendations that Lee County could follow to help meet the quickly increasing local demand for farmworker housing.

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