‘No farms, no food, no Walmart.’ Idaho agriculture industry grapples with coronavirus

Tribune Content Agency

BOISE — While the rest of the state is settling into a stay-at-home order and bracing for more impacts from coronavirus, Idaho agriculture is just ramping up.

Farmers, farmworkers and ag industry leaders have to balance the struggle to keep workers safe and healthy while meeting the demands of a food-system increasingly overburdened by coronavirus concerns — or there won’t be food refilling grocery shelves come summer.

In late March, many of the Treasure Valley’s ag-based towns were still operating like normal. In Wilder a few days before Idaho Gov. Brad Little issued a stay-at-home story order for the entire state, Cimberlie Christiansen, the pesticide compliance manager for Marsing Agricultural Labor Sponsoring Committee, which recruits and hires laborers for farmers across southwestern Idaho, was checking on the committee’s crew leaders and workers scattered across the Treasure Valley.

Despite empty grocery shelves in many of their hometown stores — locals in Marsing, Greenleaf and Wilder speculated Boise residents had ventured far to find food and toilet paper — life was mostly business as usual, especially in western Canyon County.

“No farms, no food; no food, no Walmart,” Christiansen said. “Ag is the heart of Idaho. If we want to feed the public, we still have to keep operating at high levels.” Idaho’s agriculture and food production industry is one of the key drivers of the state’s economy and was experiencing a rare rebound at the beginning of 2020, before the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic hit Idaho.

Like the rest of the country, practically every aspect of Idaho’s agriculture industry and food production chain is considered an essential business, exempt from statewide work-from-home orders and urged to remain operating as usual — because residents buying out grocery stores in Boise and elsewhere depend on it.

“The food system is critical infrastructure,” said Chanel Tewalt, spokeswoman for the Idaho State Department of Agriculture. “We are committed … to anything we can do to support anyone in the food system.” Although exempt from stay-at-home orders, state ag officials are trying to help state employees, producers and farmworkers accommodate social-distancing recommendations. Testing for food quality assurance or pesticides and inspecting farms and dairies must still continue, for example. But state labs employees have adjusted hours to reduce the number of people in those labs and are transitioning some training sessions to video calls.

“We have a great group of scientists that work at our agency that are committed to their jobs, making sure testing is conducted and the things we are looking at are safe for Idahoans,” said Dan Salmi, the Idaho State Department of Agriculture’s laboratory bureau chief.

Despite a desperate demand for food, Idaho agriculture industry is already taking some hits. Rick Naerebout, the CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, said many Idaho dairy products traditionally go to restaurants and exports. With restaurant closures and an unstable international market, Naerebout said dairy farmers are bracing for low milk prices and losses that would rival the 2009 downturn.

Dairy owners across the country — including some in Idaho — have already begun dumping milk down the drain as their markets dry up, the Associated Press reported this week.

“Milk prices have really looked much like the stock market in the last few weeks,” Naerebout said.

Coronavirus travel restrictions and U.S. consulate closures in countries like Mexico has also thrown the fate of a portion of Idaho’s agricultural workforce into limbo. Thousands of Mexican nationals come to Idaho every year to work on Idaho farms through the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Visa Program, which allows American companies to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary agricultural jobs.

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, an Idaho Republican, was one of many across the country who pushed for the H-2A program to be part of the “essential critical infrastructure workforce,” allowing buses of workers to cross the U.S.-Mexican border. Many go to eastern Idaho, but Canyon County can get more than 1,000 H-2A workers a season — and usually should start arriving now.

“Idaho is an ag state, and we always have been and always will be,” Risch told the Idaho Statesman in March. “The H-2A workers are really important to the Idaho ag industry. We’re not the only state in that boat, but we are certainly near the top of the list.” But the status of the H-2A program has changed nearly every day over the last few weeks. Workers with scheduled interviews were turned away from closed American consulates in Mexico, while other visa applications were in limbo. Joel Anderson, the executive director of the Snake River Farmers Association, helps more than 630 farmers in 15 different states navigate the H-2A program and find foreign workers. He said one-third of their farmers process applications and make arrangements to hire foreign workers during March and April.

“The timing of this couldn’t have been more dire,” Anderson said. “If you had asked me if there was a perfect time to mess everything up, throw a wrench into the ag sector, this would be it.” Anderson said it wasn’t clear yet if Idaho farmers would be able to get all the H-2A workers they need during the planting and irrigating season. If they do come, farmers will have to grapple with different counties’ requirements for quarantining recent travelers.

“We are hoping that U.S. workers will turn to these ag jobs,” Anderson said.

Mike Dittenber, the director of the Caldwell Housing Authority, said staff are trying to help the workers already living at the housing authority be safe in communal areas, like the laundry room. Dittenber said one farmer called and asked to rent extra units at the rural housing complex — which houses low-income residents, farmworkers and H-2A workers — to give their H-2A workers more social-distancing space.

Meanwhile, many farmers are working to keep their domestic workers calm in the face of constantly changing state and local laws. During a 24-hour delay in the publication of the state’s list of essential jobs in Spanish, readers and Spanish-speaking Idahoans scoured social media for answers on whether they could show up to their jobs in the morning. Others were worried about getting a permit to leave their house for work. A permit to work at an essential job or leave the house is not needed.

Naerebout said Idaho dairies are doing their best to reassure workers and practice safe social-distancing. The Idaho Dairymen’s Association is distributing information to workers in Spanish, as well as urging dairies to provide letters for each of their employees documenting their essential status.

“How do I keep them healthy and safe and also reassure them they can come to work?” Naerebout said dairy owners are asking. “Without them, we aren’t able to refill those grocery store shelves.”

On March 30, the United Farm Workers union based in California issued an open letter to the nation’s agriculture industry, urging them to assist farmworkers beyond “gestures and guidelines.”

UFW President Teresa Romero wrote, “Don’t you think that farmworkers — who are also designated as essential employees and are required to put themselves at risk by going to work — should receive the same hazard pay as their counterparts who are health care and retail food workers and first responders?”


©2020 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)

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