Disinfecting vans every night. Reducing the number of pickers per bin. Staggering paydays to ease congestion at neighborhood banks.
It hasn’t been easy, but tree fruit growers have been taking steps to protect workers as they continue to farm. There’s no playbook for a pandemic, but proactive growers and health officials in Washington shared examples of best practices with Good Fruit Grower.
In Central Washington, health districts had responded to few farms in their investigations into cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, authorities said. Most of their work involved outbreaks at processing plants, packing facilities and worker housing, where social distancing is more difficult to implement and enforce.
But even in the orchards, where it’s easier to spread out, growers set new precautions to reduce points of contact.
Farmers have ordered extra hand-washing stations to scatter throughout their blocks. They have instructed workers to drive separately and eat lunch in or around their cars.
Many orchards assigned one worker to a row; in Washington, rows are typically 10 feet or 11 feet apart. At some orchards, that’s the rule any year. At other places, employees sometimes team up to each work one side of the tree, communicating through the branches.
But not this year.
“That’s a really basic thought, but I think that’s important,” said Jordan Matson of Matson Fruit in Selah.
Rob Valicoff, a grower in Wapato, instructs his employees to stay 10 to 15 feet apart while pruning. Some of his trees are 5 feet apart, and the workers are instructed to keep three trees between them, he said.
An orchard in Zillah is using GPS tracking to mark rows to help workers and crews keep their space, said manager Keith Veselka. When they planted trees in late April, each worker stuck to a row, 11 feet away from the next.
Some farm employers have been screening workers for symptoms every morning, asking them about coughing and fevers. Some even run temperature checks. In late April, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission green-lighted mandatory temperature screens and virus testing, once testing becomes more available.
Another example of good practices: dividing workers into teams and preventing them from interacting with other teams, health officials said. Employees who live together also ride the same bus, work the same blocks and use the same equipment.
Marty Robinson of Brewster initiated that practice when his first seven H-2A workers arrived from Mexico. Using the word “quarantine,” he allowed them to work but prohibited them from interacting with the outside world at all for their first 14 days, personally bringing them their paperwork, groceries and supplies. He has since relaxed the restrictions, but still arranges his crews in teams.
Jason Matson, Jordan’s brother, likened such arrangements to a “firewall” that could limit the spread of the virus. Beyond that, he has been scouring stores for supplies, he said, at one point visiting Walmart several mornings in a row just to find enough thermometers for each of his worker housing units to have one. He also directed bus drivers to deep clean their buses every morning and evening.
Many growers expected cherry harvest, rapidly approaching its June and July peak throughout the state, to be a test.
Dave Taber of Okanogan planned to reduce his crew size from 15 workers per bin to six or eight. When they come to dump their cherries, those workers will have designated side walls to lean over. The checkers will show tickets to workers but not exchange paper, he said.
Many growers use digital phone-based labor management apps to track worker hours and wages. New and existing customers have been calling FieldClock, a Wenatchee provider, to ask how they can use those tools for social distancing, said Mark Peterson, chief operations officer. He said the phones should scan QR codes from nearly 6 feet away, if both parties extend their arms. Also, employees can check their wages and production through online portals, to reduce their office visits.
Worker compliance poses another important issue. Employers may have to check on workers and verify their distance, and even mandate it at times, said Rick Dawson, environmental health director for the Benton Franklin Health District.
“That’s not a bad employee thing,” he said. It’s just human nature to congregate.
Taber holds repeated safety meetings, outside, with all attendees standing 6 feet apart. “The biggest thing, to tell you the truth, is just educating them,” he said. Valicoff confessed that his workers sometimes have to remind him to keep his distance.
And most growers report talking with each other daily, informally sharing best practices that seem to be working to keep their staffs safe. Some routinely met internally to update — and update again — their sanitation checklists and distancing protocols as they learned more.
Communicating with health authorities in advance can also help, said Theresa Adkinson, administrator of the Grant County Health District. Some growers have invited health district staff to the farm for onboarding, so seasonal workers get the safety message straight from health experts. Others have been resistant to pre-emptive visits, waiting until they have a positive case to reach out to health officials, she said.
Overall, it’s clear farmers are trying, said Lilian Bravo, director of environmental health for the Yakima Health District, though efforts were not perfect.
In early May, Yakima County had the highest rate of cases by population in the Western U.S., a figure which officials partially attributed to the higher proportion of essential workers in agriculture and other sectors working through the state’s stay-home orders. About 18 percent of those cases occurred in workers in the agriculture and food production sector, which includes more than 25 percent of workers in the region. At several packing facilities in the Yakima area, workers walked off the job, asking for hazard pay, safer working conditions and better communication of health risks.
“For the most part, we have seen that people in the agriculture and food production industry have been pretty proactive,” she said. •
—by Ross Courtney