UPDATE: “Essential” agriculture continues as COVID-19 spreads

The virus has led to canceled or postponed ag-related meetings, events and conferences

By Kaitlin Washburn

TULARE COUNTY – As cases of COVID-19 continue to spike throughout the state, country and world, Tulare County’s agriculture industry is sorting out the impacts of the virus as it batters other industries.

COVID-19, a strain of the coronavirus, is a pandemic disease rapidly spreading around the world. As of publication on March 25, there are over 180,000 confirmed cases worldwide, 4,661 in the U.S., 557 in California and two in Tulare County, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

“The farming community keeps going because they can’t stop going,” said Tom Tucker, Tulare County agricultural commissioner.

Gov. Gavin Newsom recently issued a shelter-in-place mandate for all Californians. The order says that people must avoid leaving their homes, except for essential reasons like buying groceries or seeking medical care.

The mandate also allows for “essential” workers to continue working, which includes those in agriculture. Farm workers continue to work in the fields, harvesting produce that is needed now more than ever as grocery store shelves rapidly empty.

“We are most worried about the health and safety of employees who are out there still working,” said Casey Creamer, the president of California Citrus Mutual. “Ag is not shutting down, we worked very hard to include it as an essential workforce.”

Tricia Stever Blattler, director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, said the bureau’s message is to not panic and wash hands.

“It’s business as usual, farmers recognize that the upsets are nothing more than a lot of hysteria,” Blattler said. “This is not any more serious than the influenza.”

Since speaking with The Sun-Gazette on March 13, Blattler acknowledged the situation of COVID-19 changed rapidly and is now far more serious than the flu. The Farm Bureau is working hard to protect and advocate for growers and heeding the advice of health officials, she said.

“Agriculture is working to maintain the safest and highest quality food supply, in light of the new world we are all adjusting too,” Blattler said. “Growers remain business as usual as much as they can, in light of the shutdown, proactive measures are being used to try to ensure an adequate workforce, protect their workers and themselves from illness as well, and maintain reliability and certainty in their supply markets. Accessing even basic equipment parts can be more trying during the shutdown, and we need to make it as easy as possible right now for farmers to continue farming safely.”

While the symptoms of COVID-19 and the flu are similar, health care experts say the disease is far more serious and deadly than the flu. While coronavirus is far deadlier for older people and those with compromised immune and respiratory systems, young people are still dying from the disease.

The flu killed .02% of infected patients ages 18 to 49 while it’s 10 times that for COVID-19. The flu kills less than 1% of infected people who are over age 65. By comparison, according to data from Business Insider, the death rate for coronavirus is 14.8% for that population.

Considering many members of the agriculture community, including growers and farm workers, are older, they are among the vulnerable populations who are especially susceptible to the virus. Farm workers are also more likely to have compromised respiratory systems.

“We are certainly concerned about farmers and farm workers. The average farmer is over the age of 57, and that’s similar for the farm worker population,” Blattler said. “Clearly they are an at risk demographic, especially the physical demands of the job.”

Tammie Weyker-Adkins, public information officer for Tulare County Health and Human Service Agency, said the county’s focus is on ensuring people who are ages 65 and older are staying safe.

“We hope that more cases don’t happen, but we are prepared for a lot of different eventualities. We hope that doesn’t happen,” Weyker-Adkins said. “In the event that does happen, we are working with our state, federal and local partners and making sure people have the newest guidances.”

So far, the agriculture industry has mainly dealt with canceled or delayed meetings and conferences as coronavirus spreads. Tucker said his office is staying in touch with local, state and federal officials

“The commissioner’s office is continuing as much as possible,” Tucker said. “Farmers are still out there cultivating, planting, harvesting. We are still sending out inspectors, especially for citrus so that the fruit can move to market.”

Going forward, one major issue for agriculture, as the United States closes its borders to prevent the spread of COVID-19, is how the H-2A visa program will be impacted. That visa, which supplies temporary agricultural workers mostly from Mexico and Central America, is a vital program as many crops start to enter their harvest seasons.

Creamer, of California Citrus Mutual, said citrus has yet to see an impact from that since citrus is in the middle of its season and most of their H-2A workers are already here.

“We are concerned about not being able to get new workers if needed,” Creamer said. “As tree, fruit and other crops are getting their seasons going, they might start taking labor.”

Creamer said his organization has been constantly monitoring coronavirus and advising their members to follow the guidelines put out by health officials.

“We are taking every precaution we can. We are trying to stay ahead as much as possible, “ he said. “We have no idea how the virus will impact the industry long term.”

Citrus is currently at its peak in its season, Creamer said, and the demand for the fruit has jumped as people stockpile supplies.

“The supermarkets are sold out of just about everything, so orders for citrus have increased throughout the country and internationally,” Creamer said.

This story has been updated to include new comments on COVID-19 from Tricia Stever Blattler, the director of the Tulare County Farm Bureau, made on March 30. 

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