COVID-19: Considerations for the Ag Community
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:
- Convenience – You can join from virtually anywhere. If connectivity is good, you don't have to leave the field, machine shed, or office to take a call or join a meeting.
- Time savings – Personal chatter is almost not existent in virtual meetings. Most attending respect each other's time and stay on topic.
- Reduced travel costs – No driving or flying is required to participate.
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:
- How close do employees work together?
- How many can travel in a vehicle at one time?
- Should temperature checks be done at the start of each workday?
- If someone tests positive, should quarantine rules be followed?
- Can such a person be assigned special job responsibilities where they can work alone until they test negative?
- What personal protective equipment is required to ensure employees and others stay safe and healthy?
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.