The ominous virus that is disrupting agriculture coast to coast isn’t derailing American farmers’ and ranchers’ fight against it.

On the contrary, checks with farm and agribusiness contacts in California, Florida — states with high COVID-19 incidence — and elsewhere show an intense fence-row-to-fence-row pushback against the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 disease it spreads.

The virus is bringing a ton of disruption to farmers and farmworkers. Farmers are dumping surplus milk in some regions, owing in part to the closing of schools, for example, and Kristen Coady, vice president of Dairy Farmers of America, says overall demand is down about 10%, especially owing to foodservice drop-off. Meanwhile, farmworkers’ kids sit home without that milk in their usual school breakfasts and lunches.

At the same time, the nationwide closure of bars and sit down restaurants spells lemons rotting in orchards and warehouses.

So it’s a mixed bag. The strawberry harvests and markets in both California and Florida have been robust, with fully deployed workforces. “We harvest all year round, and we’re about to enter our peak,” says Carolyn O’Donnell, California Strawberry Commission marketing director. Rains have supported a big harvest (not too much falling), and virus-scared shoppers loaded up on strawberries in March, she says.

“Agriculture is absolutely disrupted” in his state, says California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson, “in terms of just uncertainty for those who are getting ready to harvest or those who are harvesting, in terms of making sure labor is available, in terms of … even traveling during the shelter in place orders.”

In states with homebound orders, thousands of farmworkers are carrying temporary IDs from employers, declaring their farm work as essential in this pandemic.

In Hillsborough County, Fla., a major fresh produce area east of Tampa, Florida Strawberry Growers Association executive director Kenneth Parker says that although strawberry farmers there “dodged a bullet,” wrapping up harvest just as coronavirus began to choke sales, growers of tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupes, squash, and other crops there “are taking a beating. It’s horrible how much produce is having to be destroyed,” he says.

Nonetheless, most farmers are making the COVID-19 fight top priority, say Parker and Johansson and a chorus of other farm leaders. “The first order of business is and has always been … ensuring the safety and health of our families and employees … required safety trainings, sanitation … especially with the Food Safety Modernization Act. So that sort of training is not new,” Johansson says, “but, in addition, what can we do? (More frequent) hand washing, staggering start times so employees aren’t all showing up at once … social distancing” in the field as much as possible.

Says Parker: “We are highly regulated for food safety, so there’s a lot of protocols in place. But (with COVID-19) we doubled down on efforts to ensure safety for the workers.”

Underpinning their efforts are a multitude of federal agencies, universities, farm and commodity groups and agribusinesses, all posting online COVID-19 guidance, and alerts for farm management and worker safety, such as this checklist by the Western Center for Agricultural Health and Safety at the University of California, Davis, and this quick video guidance by a University of Arkansas extension agronomist. The postings generally draw from U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidance and are often printed and have become a part of universal farm and agribusiness work environment lately.

U.S. farmers’ coronavirus pushback may be making a big difference. No California or Florida farmers and farm groups Agri-Pulse contacted reported knowing of COVID-19 cases among their members or workers. At least in part, that may be because farms and farmworkers are generally removed from COVID-19 hotspots.

Still, farmworker advocates fear that COVID-19 risks are rising for workers, particularly those who must labor side by side in processing plants or produce sorting sites, and where farms might not conduct, or have enough materials for, full protective measures.

Bumper sticker

Some California farm groups have distributed this bumper sticker as the coronavirus pandemic continues. 

For example, on Tuesday a union representing poultry plant workers in several states declared that major packers’ response to the virus “has only been recent, sporadic and limited ... leaving most workers unprotected - despite months-long demands,” and the union charges that “workers at their plants have been dying.”

The risks are serious especially for migrant workers, most of whom return from the field or processing plant to cramped housing conditions where they may face even greater risk of transmission, says Sylvia Partida, chief executive officer for the National Center for Farmworker Health in Buda, Texas.

Likely fewer than half of U.S. farmworkers have health insurance. Partida notes the most recent credible estimates, 2015-2016 findings by the National Agricultural Workers Survey (NAWS), reported just 47% of farmworkers had insurance, and she doesn’t expect the share has risen much since, if at all.

What’s more, many of the hospitals in the rural areas where farmers and farmworkers would go are in danger of being overrun if COVID-19 erupts in rural communities.

In general, Partida expects “there is a real concern among growers to ensure the safety and health of their workers, because there won’t be any workers to replace them” if COVID-19 invades their farms.

Also, fortunately, farmworkers may benefit from Congress’ recent Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which mandates 80 hours of sick leave, for example, and the stimulus bill’s forgivable loans for farmers who keep up their payrolls.

Carolyn ODonnell

Carolyn O’Donnell, California Strawberry Commission

Partida says her staff has found farmers are adopting countless ways to keep the virus at bay: “greatly limiting visitors, using a drop box for deliveries, limiting off-farm supply pickups or meetings. It's just different for every farm depending on what's being produced and their business model.” She notes the livestock operators “already do a lot of this for biosecurity reasons.”

 “So I’d like to think, being optimistic, there’ll be closer cooperation among growers and those in the communities who provide health care access, and that those partnerships will strengthen,” she says.

Manuel Cunha, who heads the Nisei Farmers League in California, reported full cooperation when he recently called managers of seven large grocery outlets in the eastern part of the San Joaquin Valley to accommodate farmworkers. Among other things, he handles farm labor contracts and monitors food safety practices for farmer members.

Cunha said farmworkers were finding empty food shelves and bins, owing to COVID-related hoarding, when they got off work Fridays and went to buy groceries for the week. He asked the managers to restock in mid-afternoon, instead of just in the mornings, so farmworkers could more quickly access groceries and minimize their exposure in the stores, something they all agreed to do.

Though farmers have long worn protective masks for some practices, such as spraying pesticides or other chemicals use, most farm groups have bowed to the emergency priority for medical and health professionals to have N95 surgical masks.

But with a recent CDC guidance reversal, now recommending people wear face coverings in public, O’Donnell says her California strawberry growers might soon order bandanas for members who want workers to wear them.

So far, labor-dependent farms seem to be getting enough workers, even though COVID outbreaks could surely deplete the U.S. farm workforce.

Parker says Florida resident farm laborer supply hasn’t disappeared with COVID-19, and “over half of workforce (for Florida strawberries) is H-2A labor, and we’ve been able to keep them in place,” with many rotating out of winter crop harvests and coming back for spring and summer crops. (The State Department recently eased procedures for approving those temporary farmworker visas.)

California Citrus Mutual President Casey Creamer says, “just about everything is being harvested right now,” including grapefruit, lemons, and mandarins, and naval orange harvest is still going.

“We have not seen the impact (of COVID-19) on harvesting labor at this point,” Creamer says. “We haven’t seen a dramatic drop-off in our (citrus) harvesting capabilities at this point,” though many of commodity growers “are now just about to start harvesting and trying to get H-2A crews into their system.”

Mike Testa, who owns and manages a bevy of wine grape vineyards in Santa Barbara County, Calif., says it helps that many grape growers were already reducing acreage this year because of surplus. “Pretty much everybody I know is (tending vinyards) with less labor,” he says.

Marshall Miller

Marshall Miller, Miller Family Wine Company

“The biggest liability is in (loss of) the workforce; keeping them safe, keeping them healthy, making sure nobody’s reporting to work with symptoms of being sick … (and) we are having a portion of our workforce choosing to stay home. We don’t want to ask people to work who feel they are in high risk,” he says.

It’s also been important to “allow workers extra time to wash hands. We’re making sure we are doing everything we can … keeping crews small and keeping people safe and distanced while they’re working.”

It’s now the season for grape vine planting, Testasays, “which is normally done in sync, with people following right behind each other to complete tasks.” Instead, field crews are staggered this spring, “entering into different blocks at different times so everyone is at least six feet apart,” he says.

Also, “fortunately, the majority of the (spring) work, is tractor work, which is, by design, independent work … mowing, disking,” he says.

Like Testa and others, Marshall Miller, who heads operations for the Miller Family Wine Company in Paso Robles, Calif., area, is adapting personnel and hours to fight COVID-19. “We are definitely down in terms of staff, but we take seriously making accommodations” for anyone at high risk because of age or health vulnerabilities, he says, and juggling days and hours for “single parents or parents where the other spouse can’t take off work and kids are school-aged and at home.” Day care centers are also closed, he points out.

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Miller scrutinized his employees’ car pools, too, “so if they’re carpooling together, they’re working together … to keep workers in as small an exposure group as possible.” 

“Everybody is reasonably and understandably scared at this moment,,” Miller says, “but our goal as a company is to make sure the workplace doesn’t mean extra fear” for the workers.

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