GAINESVILLE, Fla. — UF/IFAS Extension experts are communicating with agricultural workers to connect them with COVID-19 free testing, safety information and training – a role they have been serving throughout the pandemic.
UF/IFAS Extension agents are partnering with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS), county health agencies and farmworker coalitions throughout the state.
Extension agents statewide have led the grass-roots efforts by:
- conducting scheduled mask distributions,
- providing training for growers on social distancing, frequent handwashing and sanitizing of surfaces and how to avoid close-contact situations,
- And translating posters with COVID-19 safety instructions into Spanish and Haitian Creole to reach more community members.
Gene McAvoy, associate director of stakeholder relations at the UF/IFAS Southwest Florida Research and Education Center (SWFREC) in Immokalee, appreciates the testing program led by FDACS and helps lead a program to teach farm-labor supervisors to keep ag workers safer during COVID-19.
“In March as the impact of COVID-19 began to unfold and CDC guidance was released, I quickly realized we had a need for training and educating farmers, labor contractors and farm workers in Florida on CDC recommendations and best practices to protect workers and manage the spread and impact of the disease,” McAvoy said.
McAvoy approached the Farm Labor Supervisor Program team at SWFREC and proposed they develop a COVID-19 training program for Farm Labor Supervisors at no charge to meet the acute need in the ag community.
“We quickly mobilized and offered the first remote training session in mid-August and have conducted several since that time in anticipation of workers returning to Florida for the fall season,” he said.
Knowing that SWFREC already had an established network made it easy to reach out to ag employers.
UF/IFAS, in partnership with the Southeastern Coastal Center for Agricultural Health and Safety (SCCAHS), has provided resources and educational materials to agricultural employers and contractors and has disseminated information on the availability, dates and times of testing in their communities. Extension agents have also worked with FDACS, local health departments and emergency management teams in getting the word out and advising on strategies for effectively reaching out to the ag community, McAvoy said.
Looking out for the health of agricultural workers through COVID testing also makes economic sense, said Kim Morgan, who leads the UF/IFAS effort at SWFREC to disseminate information about safe COVID-19 measures to farm-labor supervisors.
“Farm workers play a key role in the food production system, and are listed as critical or essential employees during the pandemic, which means they may have to work despite the added risks to their health during this global pandemic,” said Morgan, an associate professor of food and resource economics at SWFREC. “Widespread COVID-19 infections could cause disruptions in the fresh fruit and vegetable supply chain as a result of the loss of health and, even more devastating, the loss of lives of the humans we depend upon during the production and harvesting seasons. So it is our goal to protect them.”
As labor costs represent 30% to 50% of annual operating expenses, growers are faced with incurring added costs to hire more workers while keeping sick or quarantined employees on the payroll to meet CDC guidelines, Morgan said. Further complicating the issue is the negative impact on revenues resulting from delays to the market should fewer healthy workers be available, as prices received by Florida growers drop significantly in the face of rising quantities supplied by domestic and global competitors to Eastern U.S. markets.
Craig Frey, director of UF/IFAS Extension Hendry County, said he and his staff have corresponded with more than 1,550 people across South Florida and provide them with information and access to training at SWFREC.
Extension websites. Additionally, agents are reaching out to Spanish and Creole radio stations to get the word out.
In September, UF/IFAS faculty and staff along with farm consultants started – and continue to conduct – Zoom meetings in which they convey science-based information to farm labor supervisors. The goal is to keep ag workers as safe as possible during COVID-19.
FDACS’ testing program, working with UF/IFAS Extension, may help what may be a very vulnerable population: Hispanic agriculture workers. They comprise the majority of ag workers in Florida, said Jonael Bosques, director of UF/IFAS Extension Hardee County.
“Farm managers and agriculture operators could benefit from testing their employees through this program in many ways,” Bosques said “It could help them manage COVID-19 outbreaks on time, by identifying infected individuals and protecting those with pre-existing conditions.”
“This free screening service may also reduce future outbreaks in our local communities, where individuals and their families reside,” Bosques said. The CDC estimates that 40% of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, but still contagious. “Testing farm employees and establishing mitigation protocols such as dividing crews in teams, using social distancing and face coverings in buildings and common areas can save lives and reduce community spread in these counties.”
Training and outreach efforts by UF/IFAS Extension faculty and agents will continue to engage across agricultural areas throughout south Florida.
–Brad Buck & Lourdes Rodriguez, UF/IFAS