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Farms scramble for answers as coronavirus threatens workers

HANOVER (AP) — In farming, there are many unknowns. The economy, weather and customer demand can affect crops and ultimately a farmer’s bottom line.

This year the agricultural industry was thrown a curve ball with COVID-19. Now as harvest season approaches, farmers are facing new questions about the availability of workers and how to keep them safe.

Farms in Adams and Franklin counties rank No. 1 and 3, respectively, in Pennsylvania for fruit, tree nut and berry sales.

“Generally, one of the biggest concerns right now and we’re hearing from our members, especially Adams and Franklin and areas where fruit growing is the primary agriculture sector, it’s just access to workers,” said Liam Migdail of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.

The potential shortage comes from recent restrictions to international workers in light of COVID-19 and fears about what to do if too many employees get sick.

“That would shut us down in a heartbeat. If we all got the coronavirus, OK, nobody could work, the fruit falls on the ground … ,” said Kay Hollabaugh, co-owner and manager at Hollabaugh Bros. Inc. in Butler Township. But, in the meantime, the farm is trying to stay positive and keeping their workers “safe and healthy.”

Not only could a shortage of workers affect a farmer’s ability to pick their produce to sell, but it could also mean fewer options available for customers in stores and an increase in unemployment.

But some farmers say it’s too early to tell if coronavirus regulations are going to affect their ability to harvest fruits and vegetables since many begin between May and July.

“We don’t even know if (workers are) going to be able to come, so working on stuff that we may not have to work on is not something that we tend to do,” said Chris Baugher, co-owner of Adams County Nursery in Menallen Township.

‘Locals don’t want the work’

In 2016, the fruit industry contributed $580 million to the Adams County economy, creating 8,500 jobs and $16.4 million in local tax revenue, according to a study commissioned by Adams County Fruit Growers, Penn State Extension and others.

The South Mountain Fruit Belt produces 70 percent of Pennsylvania’s total crop, which is about 400 to 500 million pounds of apples a year.

Franklin County is also ranked No. 2 in the state for production of vegetables, melons, potatoes and sweet potatoes.

In 2019, there were more than 1,800 guest workers in Pennsylvania through the H-2A visa program.

Denton Benedict, co-owner of Benedict’s Produce in Franklin County, usually employs around 90 workers through this visa program.

The program allows agricultural employers to hire temporary workers from outside the U.S. to perform temporary or seasonal work when there’s a lack of available domestic workers, according to Farmers.gov.

“Not being able to find good help locally is the reason that we went to the H-2A program,” said Baugher, who usually hires around 24 workers out of Honduras.

The H-2A program requires that participants attempt to fill jobs with domestic workers, which farmers say is difficult.

“For example, we’ve had our (job) ad out since two months or something, I haven’t got a single response, so if that tells you anything (it’s) that locals don’t want to work (picking vegetables),” Benedict said.

At Adams County Nursery, one apple picker will pick 150 to 200 bushels of apples a day within the span of three months. Baugher said the year before he began employing H-2A workers in 2017, they lost 5,000 bushels, that’s between $4 to $10 a bushel.

Hollabaugh said that they do not hire H-2A workers, but they also have a hard time hiring domestic workers because people aren’t interested.

“We’ve been in business since 1955, I’ve been involved in the business for probably 35 years, and I would say in the last 10 to 15 years there’s been a dramatic shift away from anyone domestic wanting to apply for any of our jobs,” Hollabaugh said.

Hollabaugh said some of the factors in this includes:

• People don’t have the skills to do this kind of work anymore.

• It’s hard physical labor. Domestic workers don’t want to work in the 95 degree weather, with humidity, carrying a crate around their neck that weighs 35 pounds.

• The pay is lower than what a domestic person will work for. Hollabaugh said they pay $10 to $15 an hour for people with skills and minimum wage for those without any skills, like high school students.

“There is a skill set involved,” Hollabaugh said. “The people who work for us who harvest our fruits and vegetables are very skilled, they’re very fast, they come to work in the morning with the sole purpose in mind to work to the best of their ability because we’re giving them a job, and they’re so grateful for it.”

On March 20, the U.S. Department of State temporarily suspended routine visa services like in-person interviews at all U.S. Embassies and Consulates in response to the pandemic. Embassies in Mexico, which last year supplied 91 percent of H-2A workers to the U.S., were the first to implement this policy.

On March 26, the State Department released an announcement allowing consular officers to waive visa interview requirements for first-time and returning H-2 applicants who have no apparent ineligibility or potential ineligibility.

“There was some changes that happened at the State Department to try and make it available for more workers to come in but it didn’t fix the whole problem,” Migdail said.

While Benedict said that his application seems to be moving along he does expect that his workers’ arrival date will be pushed back.

“If we don’t get our help, I mean, we’re already laying plastic, we got the greenhouses full of plants so we’re counting on that,” Benedict said. “If that would fall through, I mean that would be devastating.”

Keeping workers healthy, virus-free

Employers that use the H-2A program are required to provide transportation and housing for their workers.

At Adams County Nursery, migrant workers are housed in a barrack-style camp that fits about 16 people and two house trailers that can house 12 more.

These living conditions do not allow for self-quarantine in case an employee gets coronavirus. Baugher hopes that by the time he needs these employees in June it won’t be a problem anymore.

“We’ve thought about maybe the need to quarantine them when they arrive for two weeks, but we haven’t thought about what a quarantine would look like if when we had them here we would need to quarantine them (individually),” Baugher said.

Hollabaugh hires migrant workers that are already in the country. She said they have not looked into how their employees can self-quarantine yet either since their harvesting season isn’t until the Fourth of July.

“Right now we are going like the rest of the world, day to day. … Certainly my hope and prayer is that by the Fourth of July it’s not an issue anymore. That’s my prayer, but if it still is an issue that is absolutely something that we will be addressing, we will be following the CDC guidelines and doing whatever is required of us,” Hollabaugh said.

Their camp is made up of apartment units available for singles and families, which would allow individuals to self-quarantine.

“I think it’s reasonable to say that we can expect that there’s going to be some shortages as a result of this,” Migdail said. “I mean if people’s kids are out of school or daycares close, they get sick, a family member gets sick, I think those ripple effects of not necessarily being able to have the workers you usually do are absolutely a concern.”

As part of the U.S. government’s attempt to help encourage employees to choose their health over their paycheck, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for specified reasons related to COVID-19.

This includes farmers who employ less than 500 people, Migdail said.

“We are also mindful of the financial strain this places on many farms, who are already operating on tight margins and contending with the economic fallout of the pandemic,” Migdail said.

A shortage of farm workers has much greater consequences than just less hands to pick the fruits and vegetables grown in Franklin and Adams counties. Nationally, this shortage could mean less produce available for customers and less employment opportunities.

“There’s a lot of jobs in between the apple tree on the farm and in the orchard and the bin at the grocery store. … The whole industry as a whole employs a lot of people, and it generates extra economic boom for the areas as a result of that,” Migdail said.

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