We all know our farmers and farm workers are absolutely essential, not just during this pandemic but every day. While keeping working to produce our food is absolutely necessary, it is equally important that they stay safe while doing it.
Although some have claimed that farmworkers are uniquely vulnerable, and have tried to limit their ability to work, the truth is that they are no more vulnerable than any other essential workers, and the risks can and are being managed by responsible farmers and their valued employees.
Following best practices put forward by a number of industry groups and government organizations (and often going above and beyond those standards), farmers have taken a number of measures to protect workers while producing foods.
Paul Sangha, owner of Mountain View Berries, says he’s thankful it’s not yet harvest season. They are currently able to continue with their work while maintaining social distancing. He says they are providing masks, hand sanitizer and more hand washing stations.
The health and safety of their workers is their priority and they are trying to come up with a plan that allows them to continue their work while also following social distancing guidelines once harvest season comes. Paul says nothing else matters when it comes to protecting his workers from getting the virus.
He adds that it’s important they do their part to do what they can to help get rid of the virus instead of spread it. He says it doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, if you have workers it is your responsibility to do what you can to protect them.
Melissa Bedlington, co-owner of Dick Bedlington Farms, says their farm has been put on lockdown, meaning no visitors or purchases by the public can be done there. They have closed public access to their office, but since they can’t just shut down, paperwork is done through the office window to help with social distancing.
They have held safety meetings so they can talk about hygiene and social distancing. For example, Bedlington says, the way lunch breaks are done is different. Most employees are eating in their vehicles. If they get dropped off or don’t have a vehicle, it’s one person per six-foot table in their break room.
“Just making them aware, is probably the biggest thing,” Bedlington said. She said the workers had heard of some of the impacts the virus was having and had a lot of concerns.
“The idea of work being shut down was scary for a lot of them,” Bedlington said. But she said she was able to reassure her workers that their business is essential and would not be shutting down.
Bedlington says employees are not to come into work if the employee or someone in their home is experiencing any illnesses. She added it’s important that their workers stay healthy during this time.
“We need our employees to continue farming, to be successful and to be able to get our crop in the ground,” she said.
Their planting season begins at the end of April/beginning of May, and without their workers they would not be able to meet that deadline. Bedlington says she’s out working alongside her employees to ensure health and safety.
Mitch Moorlag, the general manager of Edaleen Dairy, a dairy farm in Lynden, Wash. says the biggest change is social distancing. One of the ways they are implementing social distancing within their workforce is with break time. Breaks are now staggered in ones and twos versus a large group.
He says luckily their processing plant allows the workers to stay far apart from each other. The company is constantly having to hold meetings as different aspects of the coronavirus and the stay at home order evolve.
Mitch explains how employees are the “lifeblood” of their business and they wouldn’t be able to continue work without them. They already follow rigorous food safety standards and have ramped it up to protect the safety and health of their workers.
Austin Allred, owner of Royal Dairy in Royal City, Wash., describes similar steps they’ve taken to protect workers during the COVID-19 crisis. He and a few of his employees say social distancing, using hand sanitizer, gloves and masks are all things that they’ve been doing to be able to continue operating safely.
Allred’s employees say they’re pleased with the measures that have been put in place at Royal Dairy, as well as the information and guidance they’ve been given to stay safe while continuing to operate the farm. They also emphasized that they’re thankful that they’re able to continue working at a time when many people are not able to be earning an income.
Other actions that farms are taking include:
Keeping work crews isolated from each other (including in housing and transport)
Screening employees for symptoms at the start of every day
Increasing cleaning and sanitizing of temporary worker housing to twice a day