SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Farmers and farm employees throughout California are keeping their distance even as they work to keep the nation fed amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fresno County farmer Joe Del Bosque, whose farm started asparagus harvest in mid-March, said his operation already holds extensive food-safety training for harvest crews and is inspected multiple times per year. Until now, he said, food-safety protocols aimed at protecting consumers.
“This is a different thing,” Del Bosque said. “We’re obviously concerned about our workers getting COVID from either their home or the town they live in, and then bringing it here and infecting other persons. So for that reason, we decided to do some training.”
His crews have learned about social distancing—keeping at least 6 feet from other people to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19—and being careful to keep up such practices while off the clock as well.
Many of these practices are already in his food-safety policy, he noted.
“When they come to work, they have to wash their hands,” Del Bosque said. “That’s the first thing they do. When they come out of the fields to go to their break, they have to wash their hands before and after. So they’re washing their hands a lot during the day. That’s a very important protocol.”
As the pandemic spread and county and state officials responded with shelter-in-place orders, farm group leaders took action to create guidance.
The California Farm Bureau Federation and its affiliate Farm Employers Labor Service each created dedicated webpages with information for employers, as did other farm organizations. Bryan Little, chief operating officer of FELS and director of employment policy for CFBF, said employers around the state have been reviewing and updating procedures to assure safety.
“Based on the volume of inquiries we’re receiving, it’s apparent farm employers want to do all they can to keep their employees well,” Little said.
In one effort to help farm employers, Monterey County Farm Bureau executive director Norm Groot worked with other farm organizations and the Monterey County agricultural commissioner’s office to develop guidelines for farm employees. The idea began, he said, with an inquiry from a member of the county Board of Supervisors.
“The ag organizations took charge in developing the draft language, based on the safety and sanitation requirements already in place due to food safety and CalOSHA; that was then reviewed by two supervisors, county counsel, the county health officer and the ag commissioner,” Groot said.
On top of social distancing and observing strict hand-washing habits, protocols include not sharing objects such as dishes and cups, and avoiding activities involving objects handled by multiple people, such as playing cards. The advisory says employees should be required to stay away if they’re ill and to seek medical care when needed. Meetings should be reduced and limited in size in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and high-traffic areas should be disinfected regularly.
In the San Joaquin County vineyards Brad Goehring manages, social distancing was already a regular practice. Pruning and tying of vines is the main work being done at this time of year, he said.
“The rows are approximately 10 feet apart from each other,” Goehring said. “Our most common practice, we haven’t had to really change that. We put one person per row, and that gives them 10 feet apart from each other.”
Ellen Brokaw, co-owner of Brokaw Nursery and Brokaw Ranch in Ventura County, said her operations’ actions vary.
“In the field, it’s not difficult,” Brokaw said. “There are rows of trees, and people can just be more rows apart.”
There’s no need to be closer unless nursery employees are loading trees for customers, she added, as trees are often passed from person to person on the way to the truck. Adjustments are being made to account for social distancing, she said.
In the orchards, the only work underway at present is weed control, with people working individually, she said.
“When we have crews picking fruit, they again can stagger their rows, change the way they go down the rows and make sure that they’re not all emptying their picking bags into bins at the same time,” Brokaw said.
In addition, Brokaw has joined a group of farmers, farm-employee advocates and the county agricultural commissioner’s office in a weekly meeting via videoconference.
“The purpose is to make sure we identify all the needs of our employees and help to make that happen widely in the industry,” she said. “We’ve developed a list of best practices, and we’ll keep expanding that and responding to issues as they come up.”
The purpose is to maintain production while assuring safety, she said.
“We need people to work, but we don’t want them to work if they shouldn’t be,” Brokaw said.
Precautions extend to the farm office as well. Del Bosque has one employee working from home because she falls into one of the high-risk groups. Visitors to the office must wash their hands before entering, and only one visitor at a time is permitted inside, he added.
Del Bosque is spending less time at the office and limiting himself to going to work and back each day.
“Where in the past I might go into town to a coffee shop and have a coffee, or have lunch or dinner—well, that’s all gone,” he said.
At her farm office, Brokaw said people are either working from home or working shorter hours to limit exposure.
All this is being done with the well-being of people in mind, she said.
Del Bosque said he wants his employees to know “that we’re looking to keep them safe, and we’re listening for whatever the best practices are and to try to stay in communication with them, so that they’re not in fear.”
— Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau Federation
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