COVID-19 presents challenges to growers

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By Vicky Boyd


David Strecker, who grows row crops in the Delta, made his first alfalfa cutting in mid-April and was letting it dry for a week before baling. What the hay will bring, especially considering the state’s devastated dairy industry, is a big unknown.

“In about a week, we’ll see what the demand is and the prices are,” said Strecker, San Joaquin Farm Bureau president. “Everything is just wait and see.”

But he isn’t the only producer facing the uncharted waters created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the state’s subsequent shutdown of all nonessential businesses. Producers throughout the county are holding their collective breaths to see what coronavirus-related challenges the season may bring. As one of 16 essential business structures at both the state and federal levels, agriculture is allowed to continue operating as long as additional health and safety measures are implemented.

“We’re very diverse with the things we produce here in the county,” Strecker said. “Typically in the past, asparagus was the first telltale sign for the county. That crop is no longer here, so cherries will be one of the first major crops in the county to see what’s going to happen with the export markets, the labor situation and other things.

“Last year was really bad for cherries with the weather. This would have been the year to rebound. Now everybody is in limbo waiting to see what happens.”

Keeping fingers crossed

Shortly after the statewide shelter-in-place was announced in mid-March, almond grower and processor Dave Phippen was concerned about obtaining trucks to haul almond shipments to the Port of Oakland for export. So far, those fears have been unfounded.

“We’re getting a couple loads into the Port of Oakland and the port has remained open – that was our big fear,” said Phippen, an SJFB board member  and partner in Travaille & Phippen in Manteca. “And so far, my employees are remaining healthy. We’re very blessed.”

It does take longer for the trucks to get through the port as dockworkers practice social distancing. But he hasn’t had problems obtaining trucks or containers, another of his initial worries.

“We use an outside service to get our containers to and from the port, and they’re well connected,” Phippen said.

Although he hasn’t had any export customers back out of sales because of stay-at-home orders in their countries, the California almond industry as a whole hasn’t been so fortunate, said Phippen, who also sits on the Almond Board of California.

India, which bought more than 231 million pounds of the 2018 crop, is currently under a nationwide lockdown.

“The market’s really slow, and of course, we’re not shipping to India,” he said. “That’s a hard hit for the almond industry because India is our No. 1 export customer. We’re very concerned about how that’s going to shape up.”

In his own orchards, workers are still on the job, enabling Phippen to apply bloom sprays and spread fertilizer without interruptions. Sorters on his processing line also are showing up for work.

“Amazingly, we haven’t had anybody get sick, and they’re coming to work,” Phippen said. “I’ve actually had to talk to a couple of wives about the precautions we’re doing. That’s normal for the wives to be concerned.”

Among the elaborate steps he’s taken are splitting employees into smaller squads, so fewer people are in the break room at one time, allowing them to better social distance. Crews who work outside to bring the product in are kept separate from workers on the sorting line.

“Most of the people in the office are wearing face masks,” Phippen said. “We’re sanitizing 24/7 all surfaces and anything that can be touched.”

Many of the sanitation practices were already in place because the almond plant is considered a food processing facility. But he says they’ve stepped it up out of an abundance of caution.

Mechanization pays off

Brad Goehring, a Clement winegrape grower and vineyard manager, had transitioned to more mechanized cultural practices over the past few years because of increasing labor costs and questionable labor supplies. That has proven helpful during the coronavirus pandemic, which has again stirred worries about labor availability.

April and May are slow times in the vineyards, and he only has a handful of employees, all of whom have continued to come to work.

In the past, Goehring would have had large crews with hand knives and pruning shears suckering – or removing small shoots on the grapevine trunks – shortly after bud break. Now one worker with a spray rig drives up and down the rows applying select herbicides. As an applicator, the worker must wear the proper personal protection equipment, including a mask.

Goehring said he was pleasantly surprised to find a box of masks in their shop. “We’re going to be OK,” he said. “I don’t know why – we never order things in advance. But we happened to hit it right this time.”

The show goes on

Wilbur-Ellis in Manteca hasn’t seen interruptions with receiving crop inputs in a timely fashion, said sales manager Rick Foell. If they hear rumblings about a product possibly being in tight supply, they’ll bring in additional material to meet customers’ needs.

One such product is manzate, a fungicide used for walnut blight, among other diseases. It is manufactured in India. With that country under lockdown, the product’s marketer, UPL, has warned that it won’t be resupplied until sometime in May.

In an April 3 newsletter to customers, Wilbur-Ellis recommended growers have at least two spray’s worth of manzate in their barns. Copper, another walnut blight fungicide, is not affected.

Although Wilbur-Ellis employees who could work from home have been doing so, many were still coming into the office in the morning to write recommendations and research field histories. In mid-April, that changed, Foell said.

“We made it more of a mandate that they should do as much as they can at home and do online ordering as much as they can,” he said. “This is the new normal.”