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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Whatcom farmers adapt to COVID-19 challenges

Farmers have undertaken social distancing for workers and guests, so farming in 2020 means constant adaptation

By Teya Heidenreich

Whatcom farmers, farmworker advocates and the farmers market are changing their operations to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Strawberries from Bellingham Country Gardens and workers farming land. Sam Grubbs of this family farm says social distancing impacted his already small worker base. // Photo courtesy of Bellingham Country Gardens
Strawberries from Bellingham Country Gardens. Sam Grubbs of this family farm says social distancing impacted his already small worker base. // Photo courtesy of Bellingham Country Gardens

Dillon Honcoop, communications director for the local advocacy group Save Family Farming, said farmers started protecting their workers well before the state regulated social distancing.

“For any farmer that I had talked to, they just personally want to make sure their workers stay safe because they care about them,” he said. “But then also secondarily, they were very worried that their workers would get sick and that would shut down an entire harvest, too.”

Honcoop said by late February, local farmers had already worked to supply PPE — personal protective equipment, which includes masks and gloves — to workers, and check in on their health. 

“Agriculture being exempt from that stay-at-home order as an essential business, because we knew we needed to bring in food, that was a big deal,” Honcoop said.

He said local farmers were also putting a lot of protocols in place for hand-washing and social distancing whenever possible. Honcoop said luckily, social distancing is not hard for outdoor work. 

“They had multiple reasons to be motivated to take this very seriously,” he said.

Concerns that remain, Honcoop said, are shared transportation, housing and the spread of COVID-19 among farmworkers outside the workplace.

“We knew so many more people were going to be needed to bring the harvest in,” he said. “There was a lot of concern. ‘How are we going to be able to do this and keep people safe?’”

Lora Liegel, market director for the Bellingham Farmers Market, said the market has also gone through changes because of COVID-19.

“We have limited the number of entrances and exits with the market so that we can better control the flow of customers coming in and out of the space,” Liegel said. “We’ve been counting the number of people that come through, to make sure that we’ve got adequate room.”

Workers farming land. Sam Grubbs of this family farm says social distancing impacted his already small worker base. // Photo courtesy of Bellingham Country Gardens

Liegel said produce vendors have been putting barriers in front of their tables and booth spaces to keep customers six feet back, and customers are no longer allowed to grab their own produce. The farmers market has been staggering customers 6 feet apart when standing in line, and limiting and spacing out vendors and customers.

According to the farmers market website, a maximum of 40-50 vendors are allowed.

“I think that there were certainly hurdles and challenges in the beginning, especially when we had less information,” Liegel said. “Once vendors start participating once or twice, then they have a better handle about, you know, the expectations from our market.”

Liegel said fewer people come out to the market than before, and fewer vendors mean less income from vendor fees. The market is facing some economic hardship because of this, she said.

“It used to be very much a space where people would want to linger, you know, you’d run into your neighbor or your friends,” Liegel said. “A place to hang out.”

At Bellingham Country Gardens, which offers U-Pick community berry picking, Sam Grubbs said the service has continued, but with social distancing. Each group that comes in a separate car must keep separate from other groups, and they all wear masks.

“I’d planned to plant 5,000 more strawberry plants. Well, I don’t do that by myself, so I get workers to help me.”

It was dangerous for the other family that helps Grubbs and his own family to run the farm together during the pandemic, he said. His wife and the other family’s wife have underlying health issues and are over 60. So Grubbs planted 2,000 instead.

“Keeping distance with workers is just one of the challenges,” he said.

Honcoop said the peak of harvest, when farming gets really busy, is in June and July. Some workers make the bulk of their income during these harvest seasons, Honcoop said.

Honcoop said he was aware of a conversation between state officials, farming community officials and farmworker advocates about housing standards. He said a work group had been formed before to deal with people’s concerns about work conditions under the H-2A guestworker program — the program that employs temporary non-resident agricultural workers, namely from Mexico.

Then they pivoted their focus, Honcoop said. Within this group, activists chose to sue Washington state departments over farmworker conditions and housing, according to emails from Honcoop. He said this blocked the process of finishing and releasing those standards.

“There’s now a lawsuit underway, so everyone has to kind of go to their own corner and not do the real productive, quick work of getting something together,” Honcoop said. “And then that went on for several weeks as that lawsuit worked through the court system.”

These groups responded to interview requests, but the Western Front was unable to reach them for interviews in time for publication.


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