PARTNERS

Farming is an essential business, but safety is a concern.

By Vicky Boyd


This recent picture of a farmer in San Joaquin County shows that those in the agricultural industry remain hard at work to supply the world. Photo by Vicky Boyd

ALTHOUGH THE CORONAVIRUS pandemic has brought many everyday activities to a screeching halt and prompted a statewide shelter in place, the show must go on for agriculture.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and state Office of Emergency Services have classified food and agriculture as one of the 16 “essential” infrastructure sectors that must remain operational.

Farmers say first and foremost, they remain concerned about the health and safety of themselves, their families and workers, and the overall public. But they also say agriculture is critical to ensuring consumers have enough food and fiber.

“The drive and the will of the American farmers to work through this, I don’t think that’s an issue at all,” said San Joaquin Farm Bureau President David Strecker.

Outside of public health, Strecker said he worries about supply hiccups that might prevent him from obtaining needed farming inputs, such as seed, fertilizer and crop protection materials, in a timely manner.

“If you think we have a problem now, wait three to 12 months,” he said. “If we can’t get the crop grown, then there will be many more severe issues. Right now, it’s a (retail) supply problem, a logistics problem and people are hoarding too much. It’s important that agriculture continues.”

No shortage of crop inputs

Rick Foell, sales manager at Wilbur-Ellis in Manteca, said their suppliers have told them they have adequate inventory.

Although Wilbur-Ellis has limited walk-in business, it’s “business as usual” otherwise, he said. The facility historically had delivered about 80% of crop inputs to customers, with the remainder being picked up.

A couple of the dealer’s pest control advisers have had customers who want to buy all of their season’s inputs at once.

“We can supply it, but it may take a little bit longer,” Foell said. “Do they have the storage, plus that’s a lot of chemicals to expense at one time.”

Instead, he may suggest they take possession of 50% to 70% of it, with the remainder stored at Wilber-Ellis for future delivery.

Manteca-based almond handler Travaille & Phippen Inc. exports 90-plus percent of their crop, with most of it going through the Port of Oakland. Partner Dave Phippen said he’d heard that 20-foot-long containers were in tight supply because they were hung up in ports. But so far, he said he hadn’t had problems securing any.

Phippen said he also worries about whether ports will remain operational if dock workers and others begin to stay home.

“I sent two trucks today (March 18) and didn’t have any difficulties,” he said. “We’re hopeful that will continue, and we’re also hopeful that food processing is considered essential.”

Winery tasting rooms close

Hard hit has been the Lodi winegrape area, where many small wineries rely heavily on tasting rooms and direct-to-consumer sales, said Lodi Winegrape Commission Executive Director Stuart Spencer. Although winery production, such as pumping over tanks or bottling, and vineyard field work continues, tasting rooms and picnic areas are closed. For many consumers, a tasting room is the gateway to a winery’s brand.

“A lot of their wine club members are introduced by a visit,” he said. “Not only are there lost sales today but potentially down the road.”

Some affected wineries have turned to phone or internet ordering and curbside pickup to offset some of those losses. Nevertheless, hospitality and tasting room staff have been laid off.

“I know we have a lot of wineries that are going to continue to pay their hospitality staff, but we don’t know how long they can continue to do that,” Spencer said.

Many wineries sold to restaurants. With dine-in eating shut down throughout the country, sales have decreased dramatically. Retail sales through outlets like grocery stores have jumped significantly as consumers purchase wine to consume at home. Whether the increases are due to hoarding or will continue in the long term remains to be seen, Spencer said.

Also weighing heavily on winegrape growers’ minds is employee safety and whether they’ll have enough workers.

“There’s some concern about the workers being scared and not showing up for work,” Spencer said. “Our farmers are following guidelines from various groups, like AgSafe and the Farm Bureau, on things like hand washing and social distancing. Fortunately, a lot of farm work is done fairly independently and is not close work, so that can continue without much impact.”

First test: cherry harvest

With cherry harvest beginning in early May, Linden-area producer Ken Vogel worries about worker availability as well as export potential. The cherry crop requires thousands of workers during the four to six-week harvest. Finding enough labor had been a daunting task even before coronavirus. Adding to his concern is the recent closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to all non-essential traffic, which could affect the flow of H-2A temporary workers.

About one-third of California’s cherry crop is exported, and much of the fruit is shipped in cargo holds of commercial planes. With airlines cutting most of their international flights, will the fruit still be exported or instead diverted into the domestic market? If that should occur, how will the larger domestic supply affect prices?

“How do you market that and where will the markets be?” said Vogel, SJFB first vice president. “Will people be looking for the crop when they’re looking for toilet paper? I just don’t know.”

Coronavirus resources and worker safety

To help farmers keep their workers healthy and minimize transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, Farm Employers Labor Service CEO Bryan Little has compiled a list of resources. They are available in front of the paywall on the FELS website, https://www.fels.net.

As of late March, he said there were no Occupational Safety and Health Administration or Cal-OSHA guidances that apply to worker safety during a pandemic. But many questions and issues continue to pop up. Take the social distancing recommendation that each person keep 6 feet away from another.

“That’s going to be difficult to do, depending on the type of work,” said Little, also a California Farm Bureau labor affairs specialist. “If it’s a harvest machine that requires them to be fairly close together, I don’t know the answer to that question. If it’s possible instead of a person in every position, maybe a person in every other position. It will slow down the work, but it could give people a level of safety.”

Strecker said maintaining social distancing as well as reducing group size may be an issue, particularly as the season ramps up. SJFB has already asked state agencies for relief from some labor rules, such as mandatory breaks and lunches. Could those breaks be staggered to reduce the number of workers congregating in an area at one time?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, employers were required to provide water, soap and clean towels to workers for handwashing. Now, more than ever, Little said employers should emphasize proper hand-washing techniques.

In addition, employers should strongly encourage employees who don’t feel well to stay home. Some workers may be hesitant because they’ve either used their sick leave or haven’t been employed long enough to accrue it.

Under state law, employers must provide at least 24 hours or three days of sick leave at the beginning of each year of employment, calendar year or 12-month period. Employees can start using the sick leave after 90 days of employment.

“If your employee hasn’t reached the 90-day threshold, you may want to wave it,” Little said. “I know it’s a cost to the employer, but this is an unusual situation we’re in.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom also has advised residents 65 years or older to self-isolate. Under wage and hour rules, employers are not required to pay employees who don’t log any hours.

“If that person is someone you want to have back, maybe you can do something for them to help them out,” Little said. “Even though they’re not working, you’re still probably going to need them later when this all blows over.”

As a food processor, Travaille & Phippen already followed strict food safety rules for worker hygiene and illness. But Phippen said he stepped up reminders to employees about the practices.

“We’re talking to them every day – if anybody doesn’t feel well, please don’t come to work,” he said.

Another concern is the governor’s recommendation for seniors. Of the five Travaille & Phippen partners, three are over 65.

“They’re still coming to work, but they’re getting some finger-wagging from their wives,” Phippen said, laughing. “They go to the office, sit in the office alone and are careful about sanitizing their hands.”

Whether farm workers will begin to stay home amidst the outbreak is another worry, he said.

“So far, all of our farm workers are coming to work. But those are the things that cause us to rest a little less restful.”