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What we learned from COVID-19 farmer response focus groups: tips for 2021 season

Annalisa Hultberg, Extension educator, food safety, Natalie Hoidal, Extension educator, vegetable production, Annie Klodd, Extension educator, fruit production, and Cynthia Matthias, graduate student, Evaluation Studies. 

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. These farms ranged from small family farms to large commercial farms with up to 100 employees. The goal was to understand best practices that farmers learned from the 2020 season with regards to managing COVID-19 risks, and then to share these lessons to guide the 2021 season and beyond.  Participants also completed a brief anonymous online survey that gathered further specific information in regards to the implementation of various safety practices. All participants received a $75 gift card for their participation.

We learned some important lessons 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. Conduct regular check-ins with employees and involve them in the development of your safety plan. 
  • Talk about the “whys” of the policies, and have an “open door policy” where employees can come to employer with questions and concerns. Having the whole crew on board regarding why it is so important to stay home if they have any symptoms of illness will help everyone stay safe all season. Some farms said they reminded employees that if there was an outbreak among employees the farm may have to shut down for a time, so being safe and not coming to work when sick is very important for all. 
  • 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. Discuss your policies around working and illness early in the season.
  • Stick to the basics: Masks and physical distancing are 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. 
  • 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 this season. 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 newly updated for 2021 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. Attend webinars like this upcoming webinar April 12th with Rachel Armstrong, Farm Commons about legal updates and employment law for COVID and farms. 

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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