Even though agriculture is the basis of civilization as we know it now, it is for the most part separate from most of us. We all eat, but how the food actually gets to the stores and restaurants is not something we think about. It’s there; we buy it; we eat it; and that’s as far as it goes for most of us.

Yet for millions of farmworkers, agriculture is their bread and butter — an integral part of their lives. Who they actually are, we don’t know. They’re essential but invisible.

And when the government announces billions of dollars in aid  to help farmers during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s rare to see the farmworkers mentioned. It’s almost as though they don’t exist.

But in an unexpected twist, the coronavirus pandemic is putting things into a new light. People are beginning to realize that farmworkers are indeed essential workers. Without them, how would food get harvested and into the stores and restaurants? How would it get to us?

Speed is king
In  just about all cases, speed is king in agriculture. The faster a worker can pick a crop or process the food, the more he or she will earn — and the more the farmer or processor will make. Slow pokes need not apply.

But when it comes to food safety, and now coronavirus, this emphasis on speed can put farmworkers and their supervisors at odds.

A farmworker recently told Food Safety News in an earlier interview, before the coronavirus pandemic, about what would happen if he alerted a manager to a possible food safety problem such as deer droppings in a field, a food-safety alert of the first degree. Such droppings can contain the potentially deadly E. coli pathogen and contaminate, for example, fresh berries or leafy greens.

“If I see something wrong and speak up, the first thing they would do is fire me,” the farmworker said. While this does not reflect what happens on all farms, workers say it is true in many cases.

Why would he be fired? Because it would slow things down while the problem was being addressed. Sometimes it might be as simple as quickly putting up a barrier around the area where the droppings are seen. But it can also involve scouting an entire field to see if the deer have left droppings anywhere else before the workers can go back to harvesting.

Delays like that can be costly to the farmer. It’s not how agriculture works. Instead, it’s about getting the crop picked as fast as possible so it can be loaded onto trucks and taken to the warehouses, processing centers, or stores.

All hands on deck
With the need to have all hands on deck — along with the need on the part of the farmworker to come to work to earn some money — sick employees are often out there working in the fields and packing sheds. That’s because they rarely get paid for sick days and therefore show up day after day no matter how sick they are.

But in the case of coronavirus, notifying a supervisor that a fellow worker appears to be sick would slow things down, especially now that concerns about coronavirus are running rampant.

Running rampant for good reason when it comes to agriculture.  Earlier this month, some large meat and poultry plants closed down temporarily when outbreaks of coronavirus among their workers were reported. In one case, at the JBS beef plant in Greeley, CO, more than 100 workers tested positive for the virus and four have died. At the Tyson Foods’ pork plant in Iowa, 186 cases of coronavirus were reported.

For consumers, these closings raise the specter of meat shortages and/or higher meat prices.

And even though coronavirus has not been shown to be transmitted via food or food packaging, there are safety issues if it leads to closures of farms and meat-packing plants, it raises concerns about the nation’s food supply.

Spotlight swings onto cooperation
Finding solutions to preventing food-safety and now coronavirus problems in agriculture are critical. That’s why one organization, the Equitable Food Initiative, has broadened its approach from food safety to include coronavirus.

The organization, which began certifying produce farms in 2014, originally put the spotlight on bringing growers, farmworkers, managers, supervisors, farmworker organizations, and retailers together to improve food safety practices in the produce industry. As such, it provides training and EFI certification, which, in turn, promotes the interests of  all of the players, as well as consumers. Some refer to it as a “win, win, win” solution.

With EFI certification, farms can use the green “Responsibly Grown, Farmworker Assured” label on their packages. Among the farms receiving EFI certification are Andrew & Williamson’s Crisalida Berry Farm in Ventura County, CA., Houweling’s Tomatoes, Windset Farms, Keystone Fruit Marketing, Borton Fruit, Naturesweet Tomatoes, and Alpine Fresh.

Retail collaborators include Costco Wholesale and Whole Foods Market.

At the heart of this approach is the belief that collaboration among all of the partners — from field to market — will result in increased assurances that produce is harvested as safely as possible in conditions that respect the safety and dignity of the workers. For farmworkers, this translates into respect for them and what they know. They know a lot because they’re right there on the front lines in the battle against foodborne pathogens that can get people sick or even kill them. “Building a safer and more equitable food system,” is how EFI puts it.

As for strategy, EFI goes onto the farms and helps create a core leadership team made up of workers from every level of employment on the farm, who often, under typical situations, are “at odds” with each other.

In contrast, said Peter O’Driscoll, founder of the Equitable Food Initiative, the EFI-developed teams are about problem solving and conflict resolution.

“We want to shift the culture of the farm,” he said. “We want to see the industry reward prevention — not sacrifice it to speed.”

Enter coronavirus
Even though the original focus of the Equitable Food Initiative was on farmworker labor conditions and supplying consumers with safe food, no one back then could have foreseen how important these leadership teams would prove to be when dealing with coronavirus.

“We did not envision that a pandemic would highlight the need for this programming,” said EFI spokesperson LeAnne Ruzzamenti. “But we have always understood that a healthy and well-respected labor force is critical to a safer and continuous food supply.”

Now in dealing with the challenges that come with coronavirus, she said that team problem solving is expanding thanks to the EFI communication networks that are already in place. It’s a network that includes valuable input from the farmworkers themselves because being so close to the situation gives them a perspective others might not have.

A farmer’s voice
“I have often remarked how thankful I am for the EFI workforce development model and the importance of worker-manager teams, but that has never been more evident than during this crisis,” said Vic Smith, chief executive officer of JV Smith Companies. The farm has 2,500 employees, with locations in Arizona and California.

“The ability for these already-established teams to be communicating and solving problems immediately as this issue gained traction has been critical in our ability to not only protect our workers, but continue to serve our customers.”

A farmworker’s voice
Miguel Campos, who works at Houweling’s, based in Camarillo, CA, which grows tomatoes and cucumbers in greenhouses, told Food Safety News that business is still going strong — at 100 percent.

All of the employees, including the farmworkers, have been educated in small, group training sessions about coronavirus. They’re wearing masks and gloves when necessary, keeping the right social distance, staying home when sick, and washing their hands while at work and before going home.

“I actually feel safer at work,” he said. “It feels good to come to work. And you have a safe feeling when you go home because you know you’ve done all you can do.”

Unlike fearing any repercussions if they report a possible problem, Campos said the farmworkers at Houwelings are encouraged to do just that.

In previous jobs, this wasn’t the case.

“The focus was on being reactive instead of on prevention,” he said. “Here at Houwelings the approach is ‘It’s better if we can fix something now before it becomes a problem.’ ”

That’s where the management teams come in. And that’s where the farmworkers’ input is so valuable.

“We’re considered assets instead of liabilities,” he said. “We’re requested to voice our concerns.”

But even before coronavirus, EFI’s management teams provided important communication networks that included farmworkers. It is these already established networks that companies can expand to include coronavirus.

“I’m very happy that Houwelings invited EFI to come in,” Campos said. “It’s very lucky for us that we can keep working and continue to provide food for people.”

EFI’s Ruzzamenti shares that line of thinking when it comes to the benefits this has provided for consumers.

“It helps keep food on the shelves,” she said.

Referring to toilet-paper and paper-towel shortages that has consumers facing long rows of empty shelves, she said “We don’t want that to happen to our food supply.”

Looking outward to help other farms
The Equitable Food Initiative has worked with its certified growers to learn from their worker-manager teams and has put together educational materials about coronavirus that can be shared directly with fresh produce growers and farmworkers.

The resources can be found at equitablefood.org/coronavirus.

The organization is offering a variety of resources on its website, including educational materials to distribute to workers and suggested processes for communication, hygiene, distancing and guestworker housing.

“We hope that the best thinking of worker-manager collaborative teams can assist other growers in keeping their workers safe and their businesses moving forward,” said EFI’s Ruzzamenti.

Marylu Ramirez, human resources manager for Andrew & Williamson Fresh Produce/GoodFarms in California, is enthusiastic about the plan.

“The steps we are taking to ensure the safety of our team are evolving nearly every day, and we were happy to share our ideas and systems so that others in the industry can benefit from the thinking of our Process Improvement Teams,” said Ramirez. “Collaborating across the industry and relying on one another’s best thinking is exactly what we all need to help overcome this outbreak.”

In putting these resources together, EFI has been able to gather the combined knowledge from worker-manager EFI leadership teams that have been trained in communication and problem-solving skills to comply with EFI standards. The goal is to make these resources available to help the rest of the industry respond effectively.

Resources available include education materials in English and Spanish; guidance and recommended practices culled from industry sources and public health organizations; and best thinking from farming operations with EFI worker-manager collaborative teams to create safety measures in response to the coronavirus.

EFI is encouraging other industry members to share their ideas and resources for this clearinghouse for the greater agricultural community by emailing covidresources@equitablefood.org.

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