Growers adapt to new policies and practices to keep workers, consumers safe
By Natalie Reidford
While many of us have ups and downs in our careers, farming and uncertainty are inseparable. Those who work the land have their eyes and ears trained to factors that affect them before they affect the rest of us.
Right now, though, we all have one factor in common: the COVID-19 pandemic. Like most of us, growers have reevaluated methods and best practices, doing business in ways that they had never planned or imagined, striving to keep workers and families safe.
New practices for farm employees
“One of the biggest changes (for growers) brought on by the pandemic has been in the area of labor management,” said Scott Monroe, food safety extension educator for Purdue University.
“Growing produce is very labor intensive. While growers generally monitor the health of their workers, it has become essential this year,” Monroe said. “Those farms that provide housing for workers are particularly challenged to make sure that facilities are managed in such a way to reduce the risk of COVID-19.”
Purdue Extension lists guidelines for protecting farm labor on its website, as well as links to resources for produce growers.
Elizabeth Mayall Owens, manager of Mayall’s Market and Greenhouse in Oaktown, said their staff has taken precautions in handling produce, wearing masks at the roadside market, changing gloves and disinfecting areas frequently.
Mayall’s offers roadside pickup as an alternative to shopping in person, allowing customers to pay in advance through PayPal or paying with exact change or check upon arrival.
“Customers can call in their orders, or text orders in, and we have it ready for them,” Mayall Owens said.
Changes at the Farmers Market
Vendors at the Vincennes Farmers Market have adjusted their business practices, too.
“The vendors are spaced 25 feet apart,” said Lindsay Owens, director of field operations at Mayall’s. “Tables are also doubled so there is more space between customers and vendors.
“Vendors are wearing gloves and masks,” Owens said. “We also offer an at-risk shopping hour from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. All vendors also have hand sanitizer and we are disinfecting our tables on a regular basis.”
While customers may be accustomed to picking through produce to find just what they want, current guidelines advise against handling items before buying.
Growing produce is very labor intensive. While growers generally monitor the health of their workers, it has become essential this year.Scott Monroe, food safety extension educator for Purdue University
“Customers are only supposed to touch the produce they want to purchase,” said Owens. “We have even put our jellies and pickles under caps to keep people from touching them all.”
Mayall’s booth at the Farmers Market also offers order-ahead pickup as they do at the Oaktown market.
Foot traffic may decrease
Monroe acknowledges that changing the way consumers shop for local produce may cause a downturn in business for small farms.
“The challenge here is twofold,” he explained. “First, farmers markets may not be fully operational or may alter operations in light of social distancing and other requirements. Second, there may be issues with consumers willing to travel and participate in public venues where they may have to interact with a crowd.”
The challenges small farms face may not affect large-scale growers, though.
“What we’re seeing in general is that most of the larger growers will probably retain their markets into larger retail outlets and venues,” Monroe said.
Opportunities for new business
At Mayall’s Market, business at the Oaktown location has actually increased since the pandemic began.
“We’ve had a lot of first-time gardeners,” Mayall Owens said, and she suspects many were planning to try home canning.
“Tomatoes and jalapeño peppers were the top items they were buying.”
Some gardeners, though, were ready to try new products this year.
“A lot of them were trying peas for the first time, and carrots,” she said.
Farm stress management
Purdue Extension has developed resources for farmers who need assistance with stress management. A new website called Tools for Today’s Farmer: Navigating Uncertain Times gives details on two programs, each focused on the health and well-being of farmers. The website is https://extension.purdue.edu/farmstress/what-we-do/.
The very qualities that make growers successful in their careers are the same qualities that can prevent them from seeking help when needed, said Tonya Short, Purdue Health & Human Sciences extension educator and farm stress-management team coordinator.
“The challenge with the typical demographic of farmers is that they are strong, hardworking and independent, which is great to create the sort of endurance needed to be a farmer and overcome the perpetual list of unknowns,” Short said.
“However, those same qualities … inhibit farmers from reaching out for help or even admitting that the stress is getting too heavy.”
One program Purdue Extension offers, “Communicating with Farmers under Stress,” educates those who work with farming families, from seed dealers to veterinarians to ministers. Professionals who work with farmers may be the first to see signs of stress, and the workshop helps participants learn techniques for identifying, approaching and working with farmers who may need help.
“Weathering the Storm in Agriculture: How to Cultivate a Productive Mindset” is a program to help farmers and families recognize the signs and symptoms of chronic stress, build skills in responding to concerns and know where to turn for help.
“When you ask farmers what their top source of stress is, they will, without question, list money or finances,” said Short. “That’s pretty broad, though, and goes much deeper than one year’s worth of bad weather. The ag sector has been down now for multiple consecutive years, aside from the gaping wound caused by COVID-19 market disruptions.”
Purdue Extension’s farm stress management website includes many informational links for farmers, including COVID-19 guidelines and risk management resources, crisis lines and mental-health assessments.
COVID-19 Resources for growers
Guidelines for protecting farm labor:
Business guidelines for produce growers during the pandemic:
Farm stress management: