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Farmers Forge Ahead During the Coronavirus Pandemic

As industries shut down or reduce workforce in response to the virus, Hudson Valley farms are keeping the food-supply chain moving.

Crops are still being tended and harvested at Fishkill Farms and other farms across New York.
Photo: Grant Delin
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Dealing with an international pandemic is a new scenario for Fishkill Farms in Hopewell Junction, a century-old family-run operation. But it’s far from the first time the Morgenthau family has forged ahead with spring planting and orchard preparation in uncertain times. Through the Great Depression, World War II, and other periods of social upheaval, seeds have still been sown, crops tended and harvested, and business models shifted to meet challenges.

This spring is no exception. Despite social distancing and stay-at-home directives, Fishkill Farms is gearing up for the growing season while still feeding its customers. The retail store is closed, but the farm pivoted its business model so that customers can buy online for curbside pickup.

“We saw an immediate need for food in our area,” says Katie Ross, who oversees the farm’s marketing, communications, event planning, and wholesale efforts. “A lot of grocery stores were selling out as people were buying. People wanted the safety of getting their food without having to go into large crowds.”

The farm is also preparing for distribution changes to its community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares. Instead of allowing customers to select items from bulk bins or baskets, they’ll likely box portions ahead of time.

Many farms and food banks in the Hudson Valley are taking the same approach. The Ulster County Cornell Cooperative Extension has created a digital food map identifying farms, farm markets, and food pantries in the area. Its staff members encourage customers to call ahead to ensure products are available.

“We’re not sure what this means for our u-pick crops, but we’re taking it one day at a time,” Ross says.

As countless businesses and industries are shuttered by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order putting New York State on pause, farms, farmers’ markets, and businesses related to supporting the food chain—which qualify as essential businesses—are exempt. Nor have agriculture and related enterprises had to reduce their workforce.

“If nothing else, I want people to understand our food-supply chain is working,” says Eric Ooms, co-owner of A. Ooms and Sons Dairy in Valatie. “Even if the grocery store doesn’t have the pasta you’re looking for, the supply chain is working.”

Milk produced at the Ooms family’s dairy farm is shipped to New York City daily to be made into cheese. Anecdotally, he’s heard from the cooperative who buys his milk that bottling has increased by double digits as demand at grocery stores has skyrocketed.

Apple-packing houses are also experiencing a substantial spike in work orders. Typically, most people aren’t thinking about apples in February or March, but with families now eating most meals at home, apple sales have picked up, according to Sarah Dressel. She owns and operates Dressel Farms in New Paltz along with her brother, Tim.

“There is an increased demand for bagged fruit instead of single apples,” Dressel says. “I think partially people want the packaging and that they are eating more because they are home. We’ve always followed strict food-safety guidelines in the packing house anyway. For the time being we’ve cut off all visitors, limiting access to just staff and family.”

Sanitation to limit the spread of infectious diseases is a new priority for many industries, but not for farms, especially those with livestock. Monitoring animals for illness, immediately separating sick animals, frequently washing hands, and sanitizing equipment are all part of the regular routine for farms. Limiting visitor access—“social distancing”—is common to avoid spreading disease from one farm to another.

“It’s something we’ve always been aware of because they can spread so quickly in a herd,” Ooms says. “When Europe had an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in 2001, someone coming from Europe wasn’t allowed on [our] farm. That was pretty much the same at all farms, and so there was no outbreak in the States.”

Farmers are used to carrying on in challenging times to ensure enough food is available for their communities. However, labor—much of which comes from migrant workers on H-2A Temporary Agricultural Workers visas—is a concern. The coronavirus itself and associated transportation issues have delayed the arrival of guest workers. The Jamaican consulate is closed until the first week of April after a staff member tested positive, and the Mexican consulate has stopped processing visas. Workers coming from South Africa and Guatemala are ready to arrive but have found it difficult to travel.

“This is the start of spring planting season. Because of the weather, some crops are early. Our apple growers are saying crops are two weeks ahead, so a delay in getting workers could be a problem,” says Steve Ammerman, Manager of Public Affairs, Associate Director of the New York State Farm Bureau.

More than 90 percent of H-2A guest workers in the United States arrive from Mexico, according to Ammerman. Some workers were already in pipeline before spread of the virus exploded; others are arriving or were already here. The United States Department of Labor is working to expedite the process for workers who were here last year and are looking to do phone interviews rather than in-person interviews, Ammerman says.

The US isn’t alone. Labor shortages related to the coronavirus are impacting farmers worldwide. According to the Associated Press, last year German farms employed nearly 300,000 seasonal workers, many from eastern Europe. Spain typically relies on 15,000 migrant workers, most of whom come from Morocco, for the strawberry picking season. Half are expected to stay away this year. Filling in with domestic workers who have been laid off isn’t a surefire solution.

For workers already in the United States or who are already on their way, mitigating the spread of the coronavirus is critical, as many of them live in employer-provided housing with other workers. The New York State Farm Bureau is encouraging farmers to adhere to strict safety protocols and sanitize their workplaces. Emma Kreyche, the advocacy director for the Worker Justice Center of New York, says her organization is concerned about the health and safety of these workers who are essential to ensuring the nation’s food supply.

“We know food workers in agriculture and other sectors of the food chain will continue to work and we need to make sure those workers are safe,” Kreyche says. “There has not been a lot clarity around what employers are doing in those areas to ensure worker safety. We have also heard that people are fearful to seek out assistance because of their immigration status.”

As the pandemic continues to sow uncertainty, most industries will be dealing with confusion in the months ahead. However, one thing is certain: Farmers are headed out to the fields to prepare for planting season and will continue to care for the animals in their barns.

“The fear of the first week has turned into optimism, because everything is still rolling,” Ooms says. “It’s still going.”

Katie Navarra is a professional writer based in Mechanicville. She writes about the horse industry and general agriculture for multiple industry publications and has brought these topics to mainstream publications, with recent articles appearing in and ChemMatters, among others.