We are living in unprecedented times for our generation. Over the last 14 weeks, the COVID-19 virus has quickly moved from a regional outbreak on the other side of the globe, to an imminent health threat in our own communities. It has disrupted almost every aspect of our personal lives, from the school semester to family events, worship gatherings, medical appointments and even enjoying a meal out, not to mention the availability of toilet paper. It is likely that you are carefully monitoring yourself for symptoms, as well as others around you. You may even know of someone who has tested positive for the virus. In light of recent projections for the spread and mortality rate of COVID-19 in the country, it is right to be concerned and take reasonable steps to protect yourself and those you care about from illness.
The same should be true for your farming operation. In many ways, there is a sense of normalcy in the orchard. The trees have bloomed, set a crop, and continue to grow. You are spraying for pests, applying fertilizer, starting to irrigate, fixing equipment, and managing your employees. Even if farming was missing from the official list of “Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers,” there is nothing short of being detained in mandatory quarantine that would keep you from your orchards. While we are thankful for the freedom to continue our work in the field, we must not be complacent about the threat this virus poses to us and our businesses. We hope these recommendations and resources will help you safely navigate through this turbulent time.
Your experience, decisions and management are critical to the success of your farm. Emergency Medicine Physician and Assistant Incident Command Director Jordan Thiesen, of St. Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, urges everyone to be proactive about protecting their health. Besides the well-known precautions of maintaining a safe distance from others, frequent hand washing and not touching your face, he reminds
employers that, “It is very important to make sure employees know they shouldn't come to work if they are having symptoms of the virus. This is probably the number one thing that is going to decrease transmission and keep you and your other employees healthy and on the job.” Protecting your health allows you to lead your team through this time of crisis. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 site for the latest recommendations.
Train Your Employees
Like you, your employees are faithfully showing up for work in the field so that our state and country continue to have a reliable supply of food during this crisis. Train and frequently remind your team how to protect themselves and others while on the job, just like you would for heat illness prevention, chemical or equipment safety programs. The California Department of Industrial Relations, Division of Occupational Safety and
Health, has released the COVID-19 Infection Prevention for Agricultural Employers and Employees guidance publication. It contains all the necessary information growers need to update their Injury and Illness Prevention Programs, train employees, and adjust procedures to prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace.
Besides phone calls, text messages and email, there are plenty of ways to communicate and coordinate with others from a safe distance.
Web meetings: When a phone call or email is not sufficient, you can hop on your mobile device or desktop computer and host or join a web meeting from a provider like Zoom, GoToMeeting, Skype or Zoho Meeting. This allows you to talk and share screens, perhaps when reviewing new soil or tissue reports. Several platforms have free offerings that cover most users' basic needs, at least on a trial basis. Test it out by calling a friend or family member, so you can work out any issues with your video or audio settings before a scheduled meeting begins.
Remote access: Tools and assistance are available for equipping yourself and office staff to work from home. Heather Lua, a business account manager with Verizon Wireless, shared that through a mobile application, “Employees can make and receive calls from their cell phones and have the business number displayed
on a caller ID. It even works for extensions and voicemail.” She also noted that many companies, even farm labor contractors, are using tablets and mobile apps to manage timecards and employee records, reducing the number of trips to an office and handling of paper records.
Heath Beavers, a Systems Engineer with EMD Networking Services, Inc., has worked with numerous clients to set up remote access for employees needing access to files and programs on their office computers. He cautioned that, “There has been an uptick lately in security threats, like ransomware attacks, and remote access without proper security measures are more at risk.” Contact a network or IT professional to get started.
Agronomy software: there are several helpful software options for tracking and coordinating field activities. Avoid the in-person meetings and exchanging paper; simply share the recommendations, use reports, soil samples or scouting reports through the cloud. Most software providers are equipped to provide online setup and basic training.
By leveraging some or all of these readily-available tools, you may be able to reduce your risk of exposure to infection now, and be better prepared as a company to benefit from the technologies in the future.
Plan for Emergencies
It is apparent that even our top public health officials and economists are unsure how COVID-19 will affect our country in the months ahead. This uncertainty is a reality for growers as well, and it is prudent to plan for emergency situations. These are some ways the virus and its effects could impact your farm:
Employees: If an office or field employee displays symptoms or becomes ill, they may not be able to perform their duties for a period of time, even up to several weeks. Stay in communication with farm labor contractors, commercial applicators, custom harvesters, and staffing agencies in case you need to find help during an employee's sick leave or extended medical leave.
Supply chain: While there is no reason to begin stockpiling crop protection chemicals or parts, there may be some product shortages or delays. Plan well in advance of farm activities, and talk regularly with suppliers to anticipate shortages and find product alternatives.
Financial strain: The short- and long-term economic effects from COVID-19 on growers remain unclear, but Ian Vietti, government funding manager at Innovative Ag Services llc, said, “People should be prepared for turbulence in the economy.” Ian shared that the United States Small Business Administration has
New Funding Options like payroll protection available to farmers, providing financial assistance during and after the pandemic.
Our lives and businesses have certainly changed over the last weeks as COVID-19 has spread through our communities. Hopefully you have already taken many steps personally and in your business to weather the current health crisis. Stay informed, continue to exercise caution, prepare for more challenges, and together we will do what ag has always done –find a way to continue producing a safe, reliable supply of food to the world.