It was gorgeous outside today, which provided a good chance to get caught up on pruning, pushing brush, and prepping for a growing season that is right around the corner. This is not my usual message about orchard or vineyard management.
Many of our fruit and vegetable farms rely on H2A workers. They manage many farm tasks year-round, not just at harvest. I’ve spoken with Deputy Secretary Alyson Eastman from VT Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets and she has assured me that those workers will be available this year with only a slight delay, if any, for those who would be coming in the next few weeks. Officials at the USDA and Dept of Labor have identified H2a / H2B workers, and other agricultural workers in general, as “essential employees” who must be supported through this situation.
Farms that use H2A or other workers who live in communal housing especially should develop a plan for screening employees for illness and to safely quarantine them if they are symptomatic or test positive for the COVID-19 virus. This means that employers should be proactive- have digital thermometers on-hand and teach employees to use them to monitor for fever. Develop sanitation protocols for worker housing, especially share spaces like bathrooms and kitchens. Stock your housing with essentials: disinfectants that are active against the flu virus; paper products; cough medicine; acetaminophen; etc. Farms should also identify other operations in the area with H2A worker housing so that resources may be shared if workers need to be quarantined. Workers who stay in housing that is not in their work order need that to be amended, but it will be easier to do so if they are staying in another H2A inspected facility.
I am also concerned about farms that do not have backup personnel for skilled tasks, in particular, spraying. If one of us goes down from this illness, a missed spray program during a critical time can threaten the whole crop for the season. Therefore, I propose that we develop a system where we can meet emergency labor needs on our farms through mutual and/or community aid.
I have started a google survey https://forms.gle/s9rJtFBJWH6iGqAQ7 to collect and share this information with our grower community. I could also use our VT Tree Fruit mailing list which is largely dormant but has two-way communication set up so that growers can easily reach out to the larger community.
I have been thinking a lot about the role of our farms, and the vulnerability of our farmers, during this public health crisis we’re in. Our farms are absolutely essential, and I have been impressed with how our food production and distribution system has handled this situation. One of our fellow growers posted on social media that their farm sent 275,000 pounds of apples this week alone to customers all over the eastern U.S. While most of our farms are not of that size, we are capable of producing a lot of food for people- and this year in particular, people are going to need it. So let’s do our best to get a great crop in this fall, and that means getting our orchards and vineyards in shape now. I also want to ask farms to consider how we can best rise up to get food to everyone who needs it. I am not asking anyone to work for free, by any means. But this is a time when our perennial crops can show their resilience. Orchards in reasonably good shape will produce a crop this year, barring any calamities. We may want to consider bringing unmanaged or planned-to-pull-out blocks into at least a minimal management program this year, even if those fruit are donated or gleaned by charitable organizations. I was planning to pull an older, 1-acre block (~15% or our production) from the UVM orchard this year. Instead, I plan to grow it for the new UVM Student Food Shelf. I know that labor and management of these blocks will be a drain on already stretched resources, but this seems like the year where we need all the food we can muster.
The Agency has some good information on COVID-19 for farms and food businesses: https://agriculture.vermont.gov/covid-19-information
Chris Callahan at UVM Extension also has some great on Food Safety and the virus: https://www.uvm.edu/extension/necafs/clearinghouse/home
The Peace and Justice Center has collected a list or regional mutual aid resources: https://www.pjcvt.org/mutual-aid-and-other-resources-related-to-covid-19/
NC State Farmers Market COVID-19 info sheet: https://foodsafety.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Farmers-Market_COVID-19_031320.pdf?fwd=no
NC State U-Pick Farms COVID-19 info sheet: https://foodsafety.ces.ncsu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/U-Pick-Farms_COVID-19_031620.pdf?fwd=no
Cornell Agricultural Workforce Development site https://agworkforce.cals.cornell.edu/2020/03/12/novel-coronavirus-prevention-control-for-farms/
Thank you and be well,
The UVM Tree Fruit and Viticulture Program is supported by the
University of Vermont Agriculture Experiment Station, a USDA NIFA E-IPM
Grant, and USDA Risk Management Agency Funds.