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Planning for 2021: results from COVID - 19 focus groups with fruit and vegetable farmers

Annalisa Hultberg, Natalie Hoidal, Annie Klodd, Cynthia Matthias

The global COVID-19 pandemic that erupted in February 2020 created a series of challenges for fruit and vegetable farms in the Upper Midwest, right as the 2020 season began. In December 2020 UMN Extension hosted a series of focus groups with 23 fruit and vegetable growers representing pick-your-own operations, orchards, wineries, and vegetable farms.

Here are some highlights from those focus groups that we hope will help farmers to navigate COVID in 2021: 

Management of crews, employees and volunteers

  • Open and honest communication among the entire crew is critical for acceptance and adherence to COVID-19 protocols. Farm managers and employees should come to decisions in partnership when possible, which will help increase buy-in for policies like masking, physical distancing, handwashing and other farm protocols. Have regular check-ins with employees and involve them in the development of your COVID-19 plan. 
  • Talk about the “whys” of the policies, and have an “open door policy” where employees can come to employer with questions and concerns. 
  • Balancing personal privacy with community safety can be a challenge. Farmers reported tension between telling employees what to do outside of work (e.g. not going to parties, traveling), and protecting community safety. There are some legal boundaries to what employers can mandate outside of work hours; Farm Commons has excellent free resources to help farmers navigate this dynamic. 
  • While it is difficult and potentially expensive, it is critically important that workers do not come to work when they are ill with any symptoms of COVID-19. Offering sick time can help keep your whole crew healthy. 
  • Stick to the basics: Masks and physical distancing are still our best tools to manage the risks of COVID-19. Some farmers became overwhelmed with hours per day of sanitizing and other secondary precautions; prioritizing can help the crew focus on the most important aspects of your plan. Review materials that help you prioritize, such as these summaries from last season.
  • Lean into your food safety plans: Farms with food safety plans already had many protocols in place to deal with the risks of COVID-19 like handwashing and cleaning and sanitizing said that they felt they were at an advantage. This “culture of safety” among crew is critical, and helps to maintain momentum for the practices

Best practices for farmers working with the public and customers 

Some farms described increased sales, and especially many PYO farms and orchards described carloads of visitors waiting in line for hours to enter. High visitation rates presented challenges for enforcing safety policies. One farmer described it as a “Black Friday” mentality, with huge crowds and people. 

Some strategies farmers developed to deal with these situations included: 

  • Let customers know what to expect ahead of time. This might be online via social media, or via signs on site. Some farmers reported that falling back on guidance from outside institutions like CDC or state health departments allowed them to deflect the feeling of policing visitors to a higher level entity.
  • Nearly 80% of the participants reported that customers and farm visitors were required to wear masks while at the farm. They said it was important to have their employees wear masks too, to set a good example. 
  • To reduce number of people on site and stagger customers, some wineries required reservations. CSAs increased number of drop sites to reduce crowding, and created protocols to increase safety like having hand sanitizer and having boxes clearly marked with names to reduce cross contamination. Many reported practices like using tape marks on the floor at register queues.   

Recommendations to help adapt to COVID in 2021 and beyond

Pandemic fatigue is real and setting in, and it is possible that more customers and potentially employees will push back against physical distancing, mask wearing, handwashing and other protocols. Some may have been vaccinated, which might cause some to think that basic precautions are no longer needed. Public health officials do not currently know exactly to what extent vaccines reduce transmission - therefore it is critical to maintain physical distancing and mask wearing until we have reached “herd immunity”. Employees might also start to question the need for these policies, and engage in more risky behavior.  

Farmers should reassess their safety plans together with employees and make adjustments based on what worked last year/what didn't. Engage employees in building a plan. Use templates, like this produce-farm specific plan from the UMN to help guide the process. Prioritize frequent and clear communication with staff and customers. Try to set aside some time to attend webinars for a refresher on current guidance and best practices. Finally, farmers in our focus groups reported that connections with other farmers were critical. If you are a beginning farmer, take time to connect with your neighbors, local farming associations, and other peer groups, as these connections are so important while navigating stressful times. 

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