Mar 20, 2020
Coronavirus best management practices for vegetable growers

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19), has impacted Americans and our world partners significantly. While we have gained a basic understanding of this novel coronavirus, we are still in the earliest stages of the outbreak and do not have a clear idea as to what the net impact of this virus will have on our business, community, state, or country.

As a vegetable grower you are approaching your busiest time of year and the COVID-19 outbreak may impact your ability to source inputs, engage workers, and/or operate your business in a normal fashion. This declared pandemic has changed the playing field and business uncertainty is clearly on the horizon, so you need to be prepared for this uncharted territory.

The CDC has posted a page called Interim Guidance for Business and Employers. It provides business-owners and operators with science-based information that can be used to guide your business during this outbreak. As a vegetable grower, your financial success is quite dependent upon your ability to recruit, train, and retain a healthy and robust workforce.

The old adage, “Profitability starts with people” may be perceived to be a little dated, but no business succeeds without good people working for them. While I am not a medical professional and have never owned a business, I have worked with or were employed in horticulture for the past 46 years. My goal with this article is to provide you with links to a few resources and to provide some best management practices or BMPs that I feel you should employ to keep your business running through this difficult period.

1) Frequent handwashing is the first line of defense against COVID-19. As an industry we have never emphasized personal hygiene when training our employees. The first step is to download this poster from Penn State Extension at this link: It was developed for the food service and produce industry, but it is relevant in our battle to limit the spread of COVID-19. The poster is in English and Spanish and can be printed and displayed throughout your shop, lunchroom, restroom facilities, and in your trucks.

2) The second step to place hand sanitizer dispensers throughout your operation and to make sure that anti-bacterial soap and single use towels are stocked in every bathroom. If porta-potties are being used ensure that single-use towels, water, and hand soap are available for worker use. Make sure that all trucks have basic hand sanitation supplies including water (for handwashing), antibacterial soap, and single use towels. At the very least keep a supply of hand sanitizer on each delivery vehicle and tractor.

3) Common workplaces like the breakroom, locker room, and restroom are great places for workers to pick up diseases like COVID-19. Make sure that these common workplaces (like restrooms and breakrooms) and work surfaces (doorknob and tables) are cleaned and sanitized regularly. Your business should develop cleaning schedules and cleaning protocols for your work facility. A few dollars spent on cleaning your facility each day may prevent your entire workforce from contracting COVID-19.

4) There are multiple print resources and posters that have been developed by the CDC (Center for Disease Control) that can be downloaded and posted at your place of business. Please access this CDC link to download these materials for free: ncov/communication/factsheets.html . Please post them throughout your place of business to keep your employees and even customers informed.

5) Many vegetable growers provide large coolers containing drinking water for their employees. These drinking water containers should be sanitized daily and workers should be told to properly wash their hands before accessing the cooler. Workers should also be provided single-use cups that can be disposed of after getting a drink.

6) Employers should insist that employees come to work with clean clothes on each day. Clothes that are soiled are more likely to carry human pathogens including COVID-19.

7) Many farm workers live paycheck to paycheck and will not call-off work if they are feeling ill. Some people infected with COVID-19 may not feel bad enough to be bedridden so they could come to work with a low-grade fever and what they believe to be are cold symptoms. In order to protect your entire work crew, you should encourage all workers irrespective of job title, or your work deadlines, etc. to call-off if they are dealing with any illness. While it may put constraints on your business temporarily you will not be able to continue to operate if your entire workforce has to self-quarantine from COVID-19 for 14 days. If possible, see if your business can offer some form of sick leave to your workers to hopefully discourage their attendance when feeling ill. If no sick leave is offered expect some of your employees to show up for work sick. Stay strong and send them home.

8) Vegetable growers may routinely send out 6-8 workers to harvest a field of vegetables. In an effort to mitigate risk and to protect the health of your employees I would consider reducing your crew size (picking crew) and would strive to keep the same crew members working together each day. I would also consider staggering the arrival and departure times of my crews to minimize physical contact between individual crew members. While this may seem like an over-reaction, I have seen workers share cigarettes, drinks, and even finish each other’s breakfasts at the farm. Smaller crew size in my opinion is a means to compartmentalize the workforce into small isolatable units.

9) Many vegetable operations have a diverse workforce that may include workers who are more susceptible to developing serious complications from a COVID-19 infection. Workers over the age of 60 and those that have underlying medical issues are expected to be the most severely impacted from this COVID-19 outbreak. If possible, consider offering these workers an alternative assignment that may minimize their exposure to the coronavirus from other crew members. Perhaps consider utilizing higher risk employees to sanitize/clean packing lines, sanitize picking containers, or fill orders.

10) Worker interaction with customers will occur at farmers’ markets. While we do not want to discourage this practice, encourage workers to maintain a buffer or space between the customer and themselves.

11) Worker safety training often occurs in larger group settings. During this outbreak consider setting up individualized worker safety training sessions on laptops with sanitized keyboards in offices or rooms that have been cleaned/sanitized between use.

12) Consider developing an emergency plan for your business operation if key managers become ill with COVID-19. Ask yourself who will assume payroll responsibilities if your payroll clerk becomes ill or who will manage workflow, oversee the pest management program, or oversee day-to-day operations if key individuals become incapacitated in any way? Your business should prepare a plan before a crisis develops and then hope that you never need to enact the emergency plan that you developed.

For additional information on Vegetable Production and how COVID-19 may impact your farm please contact me.

Thomas G. Ford, commercial horticulture educator, Penn State University


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