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COVID-19: Considerations for the Ag Community. Learn how with some planning and flexibility, we can help keep our industry safe and working.

Photo of plants and COVID-19 virus. Image by Omni Matryx from Pixabay

Events surrounding COVID-19 have been unfolding since last winter and have changed how many farmers and allied industry people do business. So many perspectives abound and require consideration because all of them have some impact on how we conduct business, including social distancing, personal hygiene, use of masks, the number of passengers in a vehicle, and many more.

Staying safe, respecting differences

I interact with several different companies and organizations, and no two have the same practices. One company with California headquarters requires rigorous discipline regardless of whether their employees are in CA, MN, or ND. Another headquartered in Fargo, ND, has a much more informal, relaxed set of guidelines they follow. We must respect these unique approaches and figure out how to work effectively together regardless of differences. Understanding where the other party is coming from and being accommodating while meeting our own safety requirements is essential. At the end of this blog, we list some questions and resources to help you develop a plan that works for you.

Staying connected while socially distant

Agriculture, by its very nature, is independent and socially distant, so it's not surprising that many growers suffer from high levels of stress and burnout. This makes checking in with customers more important than ever, even though our "traditional" interactions may be modified. More than ever, growers may feel isolated since gatherings like morning coffee at the local co-op isn't possible. A quick phone call or text to stay connected and let your clients know they are valued can make a big difference. When it comes to in-person exchanges, very few people are shaking hands in greeting at this time. This can be difficult – even awkward – when customers and clients have had long-standing, close personal relationships.

When life hands you lemons…make use of technology

This pandemic has amplified the importance of technology and rural bandwidth for agriculture. Email and texting have become routine for almost everyone in agriculture today. Videoconferencing platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, WebEx, and others have become commonplace too. Excellent internet service has enabled these more personal two-way virtual meeting options to run smoothly. There are some real time-saving benefits to gathering online:

It is almost certain that virtual meetings will become commonplace for sales, instructional and other educational meetings this fall and winter. In fact, real time crop tours have already started using these tools. We haven’t arrived at the “new normal” yet but each day, week, and month we are inching closer.

Keeping our essential workers safe

The critical nature of agriculture to America's food supply has never been more apparent. COVID-19 disrupted the food supply chain as we knew it. Between the shift to "food at home," restaurant, hotel and school cafeteria closures, and outbreaks at packing plants, typical demand was wiped out. This left farmers with pounds and gallons of excess and food-service, CPG and transportation companies unable to shift gears quickly. In addition to pointing out the chinks in the value chain, this disruption made us realize that keeping these workers working was paramount.

So, what does a farmer or agribusiness manager do to keep employees safe and healthy? For starters, it means something as simple as replacing the communal water jug with bottled water. According to the CDC website, "agriculture work sites, shared worker housing, and shared worker vehicles present unique challenges for preventing and controlling the spread of COVID-19." Although housing camps may not be typical here in the Midwest, they are necessary for many parts of the US, and present unique challenges as close contact and duration of contact are thought to contribute to spreading. Here are some questions you may want to consider as you build your plan:

For growers with large farmworker populations, the CDC provides recommendations for screening and managing workers and developing other aspects of a control plan. Many state departments of agriculture, such as Minnesota's, provide tools to create a preparedness plan. Check with your county, state, and hospital health specialists to get answers to make the farm or business safe, healthy, and productive.

No one could have imagined that agriculture would experience yet another setback like this, but with some planning and flexibility, we can help keep our industry safe and working.

Dr. Al Cattanach

Director of Agronomy

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