Local agriculture industry workers have continued to work through the pandemic to ensure that local commodities reach the table of consumers around the world, but how difficult has this task been while implementing the many COVID-19 protocols required to mitigate the spread of the virus in the workplace?
Kurt Richter, general manager of Richter AG, said the COVID measures his company adopted in 2020 have served them well thus far.
“We’ve had a couple of employees contract COVID, but they’ve all followed the protocols, which we believe have kept us from widespread outbreaks within the company,” said Richter.
At the onset of the pandemic, Richter said his company began providing all workers with COVID-19 specific safety training and made ample sanitizing resources available to them, including various disinfectants, soaps and sanitizers. They also installed strict protocols for sick workers that require them to stay home if they feel any of the symptoms associated with coronavirus.
“We will continue to keep those measures in place, but I wouldn’t classify our attitude as ‘concerned,’” said Richter.
Richter said their farming practices, however, have remained unchanged outside of the ramped up workplace safety protocols.
Mitchell Yerxa, farm manager at River Vista Farms in Colusa, said anytime anyone on the ranch is in a car, vehicle, or enclosed building together, including the shop, they are required by the current state law to wear a mask.
“Outside of that, we are having anyone working in our shop take their temperature every morning before starting to ensure nothing there,” said Yerxa. “They are (also) receiving COVID tests before they can come back to work if they have been gone for the winter to Mexico or Los Angeles.”
According to Yerxa, they have also started placing black rubber sheets between individuals planting tomatoes so they have a physical barrier in place, which has provided a simple and safe solution for planting.
Yerxa said while he feels every fortunate that there have not been any virus outbreaks at River Vista Farms over the course of the pandemic, the bigger picture isn’t just “on the farm” – it’s all of the support industries that must work together to get the product from the field to the consumer.
Yerxa said there were tremendous difficulties in locating trucks and truckers to move hauls in 2020, especially in the tomato, almond and wine industries.
“So many loads were stalled or backlogged, which was awful for crops that need to be harvested when ripe and not much later,” said Yerxa. “Many truck drivers couldn’t work because their kids weren’t in school and they needed supervision.”
Yerxa said it was also a challenge moving products into counties that were in and out of lockdown as well as restaurants that were bouncing back and forth between closure and capacity restrictions.
Yerxa said that, like the majority of people, the concern, fear and nervousness surrounding the virus has also impacted local agriculture workers.
“It wears on people, but as vaccines are starting to be administered I think the general public and the workforce is starting to feel more comfortable that there isn’t an imminent spread,” said Yerxa.
Colusa County Agricultural Commissioner Anastacia Allen said employee safety is always a concern and, like most everything else, COVID-19 risk mitigation measures are new to the agriculture industry
According to Allen, one specific challenge presented to growers throughout this pandemic is the availability to obtain personal protective equipment.
“Growers are very familiar with PPE and use it regularly for pesticide applications,” said Allen. “At the start of the pandemic, there was a rush on N-95 masks among other PPE regularly used by pesticide handlers. This made it difficult for them to continue to provide their employees with PPE to mix, load and apply chemicals.”
Allen said this was when the Department of Pesticide Regulation with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Department of Public Health joined forces to acquire and distribute PPE to growers throughout the state.
While Allen said farming practices have not changed due to the pandemic, employers are now required to provide additional PPE to protect from COVID and this continues to be a high priority.
“We have helped support them in these efforts by distributing sanitation PPE – cloth masks, surgical masks, N-95 masks, hand sanitizer, face shields, gloves – to any grower or agricultural industry in need,” said Allen. “This was done in coordination with CDFA and CDPH specifically for the agricultural industry.”
According to Allen, much of agricultural work during this season is done outdoors where social distancing and minimum physical contact is normal so employees are asked to continue to practice safe COVID protocols for their own protection as well as that of the public while the continued shutdowns are in place.
“With everything closing down and stopping in the world around us, one thing that doesn’t stop is the seasons,” said Allen. “As long as the seasons continue to change, farmers will continue to farm because we need to eat. And as long as they are farming, the Agricultural Commissioner’s offices will continue to do their part to protect and promote agriculture, protect the citizens and the environment we serve in.”