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Coronavirus not stopping Idaho agriculture

Drip tape is laid March 6 in a field that will be planted to onions.

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – Idaho farmers and ranchers are plowing ahead with their food-production plans this year, even as they deal with great uncertainty over how the coronavirus outbreak will impact things.

“Beyond all the noise the media is making about this, things are not much different here,” said Don Tolmie, production manager of Treasure Valley Seed Co. in Homedale.

Tolmie said farming operations are proceeding as normal in his neck of the woods, with an added emphasis on being socially responsible and doing what they can to prevent spread of the virus.

“We’re trying to be cognizant of that and doing things like keeping a six-foot distance, keeping surfaces wiped down and using hand sanitizer often,” he said. “These are things we always do – we always take good, sanitary measures – but it’s even more emphatic now.”

The last thing the farming community wants is for farm workers to catch the coronavirus, he said.

“It would be terrible, atrocious really, to get an outbreak within the farm worker community,” he said. “Man, we would be in trouble then.”

Michael Williamson, manager of Williamson Orchards and Vineyards in the Caldwell area, said his operation is proceeding as usual this year.
“We have crews out there pruning and getting ready for this year,” he said.

He said the operation is taking steps to try to prevent spread of the disease, while at the same time trying to remain in business.

“We’re just trying to keep our business going but also do our part to help stop this thing,” he said. “It’s tough. Things are happening that you’ve never heard of before. The imagination has time to think about what will happen next.”

One of the biggest concerns in farm country at the moment is what kind of impact the outbreak will have on operations that use the federal H-2A agricultural guest worker program.

There is significant concern over whether those operations will be able to receive their normal number of foreign H-2A workers this year, said Joel Anderson, executive director of the Snake River Farmers Association, a non-profit group of agricultural producers that helps members process H-2A applications.

“It’s a significant concern and it’s a fluid, developing situation,” he said.

If there is a major disruption in the flow of H-2A workers from other nations, “There is a tremendous potential to negatively affect food production (in the U.S.) this year,” Anderson said.

About 700 agricultural operations in Idaho applied for H-2A workers last year and almost 6,000 foreign workers were certified to work in Idaho.

Nationwide, 258,000 immigrant workers were approved under the H-2A program in 2019.

Officials from the U.S. State Department have publicly stated they understand the importance of the H-2A visas and that they are a priority, which is a good sign, Anderson said.

The state department has “been very clear they understand the importance of the H-2A program and are doing everything they can to process those applications that they can,” he said.

But, he added, the larger threat would be a full closure of the U.S. border, and agricultural groups are working hard to ensure government officials understand the impact that would have on the nation’s food supply.

If it’s necessary in the interests of national security to shut the border completely, that’s understood, Anderson said, “but we and other organizations are working hard to ensure they understand the impact any complete border closure would have on agriculture.”

On March 20, the Trump administration announced new travel restrictions between the U.S. and Mexico. That includes halting all non-essential travel. What that means for agriculture isn’t certain yet.

Members of Congress, including members Idaho’s congressional delegation, sent a letter dated March 19 to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf emphasizing the importance of the H-2A program to U.S. agriculture.

The letter makes it clear congressional members understand the importance of maintaining public health safety and efforts to minimize the impacts of coronavirus.

“However, there are substantial national security concerns that will arise should our farmers not have the labor they need,” the letter adds.

The letter asks officials to “use all available authorities to provide maximum flexibility to consulate staff in the processing of H-2A visa applicants, while implementing protocols to protect public health.”

American Farm Bureau Federation President Zippy Duvall released a statement about U.S. farmers’ commitment to producing the nation’s food supply this year.

“Farmers and ranchers remain committed to doing the work in the fields, orchards and barns across the country to ensure Americans have access to healthy, affordable food,” he stated.

Duvall said AFBF is in constant contact with USDA, the State Department and the White House.

“We have urged them to find safe, practical ways to admit farm laborers as emergency workers for visa purposes while still protecting public health,” he stated. “We will remain watchful and vigilant to ensure U.S. agriculture and others in the food supply chain are able to continue feeding America, as we do 365 days a year.”

Cherry Hill Farm in the Caldwell area relies on H-2A workers for most of its labor needs and so far this year, has 24 of the guest workers. However, the operation will need about 40 come harvest time, said manager Sean Rowley.

“We are concerned that we will not have enough workers to take care of what we need to get done,” he said. “We hope the border is still open then and that we are still allowed to apply for H-2A workers.”

Cherry Hill Farm has the potential for a decent size crop this year, Rowley said.

“We’re going to be in a world of hurt if we have a full crop and we aren’t able to get the H-2A laborers that we need to harvest it,” he said. 

Idaho State Department of Agriculture Director Celia Gould sent a letter March 19 to members of the state’s agricultural community ensuring them the department is doing everything it can to help farmers and ranchers through this trying time.

ISDA officials are in constant contact with the governor’s office regarding the state’s response to coronavirus, the letter said.

“One thing is clear: the food system is critical infrastructure,” Gould said. “The ISDA will do everything we can to ensure we’re doing our part to keep the food system moving.”

The letter says ISDA is fielding calls from businesses, such as livestock sale yards, asking whether the department is mandating closure of any agribusiness.

“The governor has not mandated closure of operations,” Gould said. “However, we strongly encourage enhanced health and cleaning measures.”

“To everyone in Idaho agriculture, thank you for feeding the world,” Gould’s letter concluded. “Your work is essential every day but has been especially highlighted in recent weeks.”