On vegetable farms, growers grapple with harvest demands and coronavirus risks

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On vegetable farms, growers grapple with harvest demands and coronavirus risks

On vegetable farms, growers grapple with harvest demands and coronavirus risks
In a field near the town of Wellton last week, a crew of workers stooped down and cut heads of iceberg lettuce, following a machine that rolled loaded boxes on a conveyor belt to a trailer. The men and women worked side-by-side in groups of two, stripping off excess leaves, wrapping each head of lettuce in plastic and packing box after box.

The farms around Yuma produce much of the country’s lettuce and other leafy vegetables from winter until early April, and the harvest system has long involved crews of Mexican and Central American workers laboring shoulder-to-shoulder.

Growers say they’re telling employees to abide by federal guidelines and keep safe distances from each other to limit the spread of coronavirus. They say managers of vegetable-packing businesses are working out how to change procedures in the fields so that workers can stay farther apart — a considerable challenge for an industry that typically relies on teams harvesting crops together in close quarters.

“Cutting this lettuce, wrapping it and putting it in a box, it’s hard work and it’s hard to spread everybody out and do it keeping a 6- or 10-foot distance,” said grower John Boelts. “We’ve got some challenges to implement distancing with equipment and everything the way it is. People are going to figure it out and make it work, and we’ll keep the food supply running while being cognizant of worker safety.”

Together with his wife, Alicia, and business partners, Boelts owns the company Desert Premium Farms and manages about 2,500 acres of farmland. He has about 40 employees and relies on crews hired by packing companies to harvest lettuce.

He stood watching while the workers, wearing gloves and using knives, advanced along the green rows cutting heads of lettuce.

Boelts said these Mexican guest workers are in the country temporarily on H-2A visas. He acknowledged that, unlike some other crews, this one hadn’t yet shifted to keeping 6 feet between workers.

“Over the next couple of weeks, everyone is working on implementing that,” Boelts said. “We’re all trying to figure this out.”

The workers were in their final few days finishing the lettuce harvest in Yuma. Next, they’ll hit the road to cut lettuce in Salinas, Calif.

Boelts said he expects the harvest crews will continue shifting to more physical distancing as they move on. The changes will need to involve not only ensuring safe distances during field work, he said, but also having workers more spread out in their housing and on buses.

“We’re making changes on the fly,” Boelts said. “We’re not going to shut down. We’re going to have to find ways to make this work for the health and safety of all the employees.”

The coronavirus pandemic is bringing major challenges for the U.S. agriculture industry. While grappling with how to keep workers safe, farm managers are also worried that efforts to curb the spread of the virus could worsen a longstanding shortage of agricultural laborers.

The U.S. government has scaled back operations at consulates in Mexico and has halted processing of new applications for farmworkers to come to the country temporarily through the H-2A program.

“We’re already handicapped in our ability to have enough workers in this country. We’re importing too much food into this country. And then you throw a pandemic that impacts the domestic and guest worker population,” Boelts said. “Over time, this is going to have a creep effect. And we’re worried about the long term of what it means.”

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