With the world struggling through the impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic, Imperial-San Diego Currents interviewed (by phone) Imperial Valley farmer Scott Howington, president of the Imperial Valley Vegetables Growers Association, on how vegetable growers in the Valley are coping with the crisis.
The short answer is that agriculture remains an essential service not only to serve California, but the nation and the world, and to that end the harvesting of vegetables is ongoing and expected to continue as the Valley heads toward the final weeks of the winter vegetable crops.
“We have not to this point been impacted,” said Howington, whose farm operation, Oasis Farming Inc., focuses on organic crops, but he emphasized that food safety protocols already in place and critical to farming become all that much more important to follow.
For his own operation, that means stepped up efforts in light of the Coronavirus.
When it comes to agriculture, he said, the farming work that goes into the planting of the crops typically does not bring workers physically close together; it is the harvesting where there could be potential issues because of the proximity of the crews. That is where additional precautions are necessary due to the virus and farmers are tailoring these steps to their specific operations.
“What we are doing is making sure the equipment is sanitized several times a day, and we are making sure crews keep the recommended distance from each other,” Howington said. “We are trying to make sure crews stay healthy.”
However, if workers and staff are feeling sick, they are told to stay home or sent home if they come to work and present any signs of illness, Howington said.
Precautions to make sure staff are healthy are equally important in other aspects of agriculture, including at the coolers where crops are stored, he added.
“It’s an interlocked chain,” he said. “You break any part of it, and it will begin to be an issue.”
To date there have been no noticeable impacts on the vegetable industry in the Imperial Valley.
With the harvesting season still in effect, the need for workers—many of them from across the border—remains high. Howington pointed out that while there are restrictions on border crossings, those restrictions have not involved those crossing to work in the agriculture industry. Under the new conditions, crews from Mexico have been able to cross with just their work permit. Should the time come that workers need additional proof of working in agriculture, he’s having letters prepared from his company to provide to crews.
For now, harvesting will continue into its final weeks of the season, and all food safety protocols are continuing to be followed. Howington reminds everyone to follow their own safety protocols as they normally should do from washing their fruits and vegetables to peeling away top layers of the vegetables they eat.
“Everyone has to use their best judgement,” he said of both farmers and consumers.
As the world navigates through these challenging times and faces a shortage in supplies of basic necessities, the importance of agriculture takes on even greater meaning as consumers look to grocery stores and restaurants for some certainty that food supplies will remain available.
Howington pointed out there has been no reduction in the produce grown and harvested in the Valley in the wake of the Coronavirus, and the Valley continues to provide food worldwide.
“As a community, something like this does brighten the light on the impact agriculture has to the fabric of the economy and our society,” he said.
He added, “We are just doing what we normally do.”
Howington finished by praising those who directly serve the public—the first responders, those who work in hospitals, the clerks in grocery stores, among so many others, as the ones who deserve the credit for keeping communities going.