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COVID-19 Prevention Efforts by New York farmers

A survey of farm managers conducted during summer 2020.

New York farmers confronted a massive, new challenge in 2020 from the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes in humans, COVID-19. Cornell Agricultural Workforce Development conducted a survey to capture a snapshot of the actions that farmers took in their businesses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among the farm workforce, customers, and other farm visitors, and in the local community. As essential businesses, New York farmers were faced with the unenviable task of maintaining operations, while at the same time being responsive to numerous infection prevention directives.  

The farm managers who responded to this survey gave us some glimpses of the significant struggle they had with implementing COVID-19 prevention actions on their farms. In spite of the difficulties, it appears that respondent farms widely recognized the seriousness of the pandemic and took robust action to prevent spread of the virus in their farm businesses.  

Over 70 percent of respondent farms indicated they were doing “a lot” with respect to hand sanitation and providing face coverings. Around 60 percent of farms indicated they did “a lot” to provide training for employees about coronavirus and place signs in the workplace. When “a lot” and “some, but more could be done” are combined, over 70 percent of farms were taking actions on: hand washing, providing face coverings, training, signs, new cleaning, and required face coverings. 

Another subset of COVID-19 prevention actions involved planning and preparation rather than immediate workplace actions. Over 84 percent of farms with more than two employees indicated “a lot” or “some” effort focused on developing written farm business safety plans. Considerably fewer respondents, about 62 percent, reported doing “a lot” or “some” to implement daily screening of employees, while 23 percent implemented it “not at all” and almost 15 percent said it was not applicable. Technically, all New York businesses were required to implement daily screening questions but the process was frequently confusing, and for some farms it was impractical because the whole farm workforce was essentially sheltering in place together. 

Over 55 percent of respondents took “a lot” of action in planning to provide quarantine housing for employees according to CDC guidelines, while another 26 percent did “some” planning for this. Planning for isolation of positive-tested or ill employees was somewhat less with 48 percent “a lot” and 22 percent “some.” About 26 percent said they increased inspection and overall management of employee housing “a lot” and another 52 percent said they increased it “some.” Actions to spread out employees, change ventilation, or otherwise modify housing to prevent virus spread were much less frequently carried out. 

Respondents generally took “a lot” or “some” action to prevent COVID-19 by requiring face coverings be worn in vehicles, increasing vehicle cleaning, and increasing ventilation. Most did not change transportation schedules for employees or physically alter the vehicles to prevent virus spread. Surprisingly, a large number of respondents answered “not at all” when asked if they had reduced the number of occupants in each vehicle. 

Retail farms indicated they acted with particular intensity to prevent COVID-19. Five recommended actions had a combined indication of “a lot” and “some” that was over 80 percent, including: requiring face coverings when interacting with customers, improving customer access to hand sanitation, new cleaning procedures, employee training, and placing signs or posters about safe practices in the retail area. All of the recommended actions had “a lot” responses that were 50 percent or greater. Most “not at all” responses for preventive actions were quite low. 

We asked farm managers to estimate the direct cost of COVID-19 prevention actions, including changes to equipment, processes, and staffing, but excluding indirect costs such as lost sales or price changes in the market. The largest group of managers estimated this cost at between $1,000 and $5,000, while the next largest group said it was less than $1,000. Smaller numbers estimated their costs as much higher, including a few large livestock operations indicating it ran over $50,000 in costs to the farm. 

These research findings are limited due to the small response size (70 complete responses from active New York farmers), which limits their generalization to all New York farms. More research is needed, especially in-depth interviews and case studies with farms, to better understand the experiences and decision processes of farm managers during this unprecedented pandemic.  

Findings from this and future research can be used to train farm managers to better prepare for and respond to public health and other widespread emergencies. Similarly, government, public health, and educational institutions can use this information to plan for more effective industry support, guidance and outreach. 

To read the full survey report, visit: https://bit.ly/36FdASW  

The article COVID-19 prevention efforts by New York farmers  appeared first in The Ag Workforce Journal

 

Richard Stup

Richard Stup

Richard Stup addresses challenges facing the agricultural industry through educational programs and applied research. He also provides leadership as a liaison between the agricultural industry and employment-focused regulatory authorities. His focus is on human resource management, enhancing employee engagement, regulatory compliance, and leadership development at the farm level.