With agriculture recognized as an essential service, the Imperial County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office has taken the lead in distributing more than half a million face masks to all sectors of the agricultural industry in the Valley since May and the efforts to provide the masks are continuing.
“This was a positive result of the state understanding our need,” said Imperial County Agricultural Commissioner Carlos Ortiz. “They heard us.”
The distribution of face masks to the ag community was part of a joint statewide effort of the California Agricultural Commissioners and Sealers Association together with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the Department of Pesticide Regulations. The masks were provided to the county by the California Office of Emergency Services.
Working together in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the entities prepared a survey to determine the needs of those who worked in agriculture, in particular, once agriculture was determined by both the state and federal governments to be an essential service.
Locally, Ortiz’s office sent out the survey to the agricultural community, and there was an overwhelming response that personal protective equipment, starting with face masks, were a critical need.
Ortiz said he was thankful that the agricultural community responded quickly and in large numbers.
“The reaction to the survey let the state know there was an immediate need,” Ortiz said, adding the response to the survey enabled the state to respond quickly to the local need. Some 824,000 face masks were provided to the county for agriculture from the state’s Office of Emergency Services.
To date, some 126 agricultural-based companies, including companies that work in pest control, have received more than 566,000 masks, and with 257,800 masks remaining, the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office is continuing the effort to distribute to those with a need.
The masks have been distributed to farm labor companies, growers, pest control businesses, feed lots, hay presses, trucking companies, the local algae plant, Spreckels Sugar, the dairy industry—to name a few sectors of agricultural industry.
J Rollins, Vice President and Operations Manager of Rolling R Enterprises, a local family-owned custom harvesting and hauling company, shared that his company received face masks for his employees at a time that masks were very difficult to find through normal retail or wholesale avenues.
“Aside from our sanitation protocols, the masks we received from the Ag Commissioner’s Office was vital in keeping our workforce healthy, especially at the peak of our operations,” Rollins said.
Additionally, masks have been provided to agencies that work with farm workers, including Campesinos Unidos and Clinicas De Salud Del Pueblo.
Along with such distributions, the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office has provided masks to individual farm workers and crews while doing field inspections.
“You are trying to focus on what else you can do to get the face masks to those who need them,” Ortiz said.
Imperial County Farm Bureau Executive Director Brea Mohamed said she was grateful for the mask distribution, adding the masks are helping the growers to ensure the safety of their employees and crews.
When the pandemic struck Imperial County, growers faced heavy costs to purchase such personal protective equipment, which placed further strain on their operations at a difficult time. It was also a challenge to find enough face masks to serve the local need of agricultural, she said.
Despite the Coronavirus, agricultural work had to continue, she said.
“This hit right at the end of the produce harvest and just as we were starting to harvest corn, then came onions and melons,” she said. “Plus the feedlots and forage crops are year-round.”
The support from the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office has helped protect those in agriculture as they worked through the harvests and their daily operations.
Going forward, Mohamed said she is hopeful there might be additional help with other personal protective equipment, like hand sanitizers and sanitizers for farm equipment.
Ortiz said along with the 824,000 face masks, the county is going to be receiving a shipment of special respirator masks, known as N-95 masks, that will be distributed to those in agriculture that work with applied pesticides that require such special respirator equipment.
He said there is a rewarding feeling that comes from working with a team to respond to a local need.
He added, “The fact we have received these masks from the state points to how critical agriculture is as an essential service to keep food on the table, especially during these challenging times. Everyone in agriculture deserves praise for the work they are continuing to do.”