Many businesses across the Central Coast, especially in the tourism and hospitality industries, are slowing or have shut down. But that isn’t the case for one of our region’s most important sectors, agriculture. In fact, even with or perhaps because of COVID-19, this industry is thriving.
It’s the beginning of the harvesting season in the Salinas Valley. Farmworkers are in the fields picking broccoli and cauliflower, and any day now, they’ll start on the leafy greens.
It’s almost business as usual for farmers in what many call “the salad bowl of the world," except for one key difference, the demand.
“They want more, more, more, because there's such a run on food in these stores all over the country,” said John D’Arrigo, chairman and CEO of D'Arrigo California, who packs the Andy Boy label.
His company grows, packs and ships fruits, vegetables and wine grapes. They farm 27,000 crop acres extending from Moss Landing to King City.
Since the spread of COVID-19 across the United States, people have been panic buying. This means D’Arrigo’s sales department is getting a lot of calls.
He does say his food service business has suffered greatly. That’s food ear-marked for restaurants. But that hasn’t really been a problem because all of that business is now going to the retail sector - the supermarkets.
“Here I am going a hundred percent full tilt, fully employed, got demand that I can't satisfy across the country and into Canada,” said D’Arrigo.
He says they are taking the pandemic very seriously. Farmworkers are deemed essential during this time, meaning they can work despite shelter-in-place orders.
But, D’Arrigo says they have to be symptom free in order to get on the buses to come to work.
When they get to work, social distancing is being practiced in rest areas and extra hand washing stations have been set up.
And when it comes to handling the food, D’Arrigo is quick to bring up the strict hygiene practices that have been in place for years.
“So everybody's used to the gloves, the hairnets, the sanitizing, the knives, the wiping down everything, the rules on the bathroom,” D’Arrigo said.
John D’Arrigo’s reassurances are echoed across much of the industry. Monterey County leaders recently came together with ag industry associations, and created enhanced safety protocols for farmworkers.
“There will be increased, I think, vigilance and action on the part of employer into making sure that they can be as protective as possible to the workforce,” said Christopher Valadez. He’s President of the Grower-Shipper Association, an ag industry trade association for the region.
He says farmers are very much aware of how important they are right now.
“I think it's going to require a significant undertaking by this industry to ensure it can maintain that vital food network and food supply chain,” said Valadez.
But he is confident.
“Right now from this region, you know, we don't anticipate disruption,” said Valadez.
But farmworkers are a vulnerable population, which creates unique challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. Challenges because of how many farmworkers are housed.
“You're lumping up two or three families in a household,” said Daniel Gonzalez Vasquez, the Executive Director of the Center for Community Advocacy, a local non-profit that supports farmworkers and low-income families.
“If somebody within those, you know, the household gets sick, that means the other three families or two families that are living in that house are going to be exposed to it,” said Gonzalez Vasquez.
He says there’s also the challenge of communication, especially within indigenous communities, for example.
“Those farmworkers that only speak those dialects or languages are not going to be able to receive the information adequately,” said Gonzalez Vasquez.
And then there’s the undocumented. The United Farm Workers believes more than half of farmworkers in the United States are undocumented.
Gonzalez Vasquez says these workers are at even higher risk during this pandemic.
“Not just because they don't have access to medical, and not just because they don't have access to unemployment, but because they are pushed to remain hidden,” Gonzalez Vasquez said.
That means they might not seek help if ill, out of fear of being deported.
So if farmworkers do get sick, what does it mean for the food supply?
“Now that would be a serious problem for the entire valley,” John D’Arrigo again of D'Arrigo California.
“If all of a sudden just say everybody lost half their workforce, you'd have a lot of wasted vegetables, put it that way, because you couldn't physically harvest them,” D’Arrigo said.
D’Arrigo says there just aren't enough farmworkers to go around.