COVID-19 Prep for the Fall
Wednesday, August 12, 2020
Posted by: Mary Kendall Dixon
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association staff have been actively working with industry partners and regulatory agencies to represent our members concerns and needs. While this continues, GFVGA is now proactively working with the GA Department of Public Health, GA Dept of Agriculture and the University of Georgia to highlight “lessons learned” from the COVID-19 spring season to be prepared for what could happen this Fall.
These discussions have been specific to the produce industry regarding preparations to keep employees safe in farm, harvest, packing facilities, transportation, and housing operations. This working group is actively working to develop a toolkit for agricultural employers and employees for use during the 2020 Fall season based on regulatory guidance, industry best practices, and lessons learned. This reflection of COVID-19 related events has highlighted several areas that will remain crucial as we move into the Fall season: strong partnerships, regular communication, adequate resources, and streamlined regulations.
Without the great private-public partnerships between GFVGA and the Georgia Depts of Agriculture and Public Health, Georgia’s produce industry may have had a very different response to COVID-19. Our GA Dept of Agriculture and Commissioner Black has been an indispensable partner with GFVGA, individual growers and communities as COVID-19 cases began to surface. When the first larger scale outbreak occurred, Commissioner Black personally reached out to Georgia Dept of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen E. Toomey to help bring attention to a community wide situation. These crucial calls by Comm Black were necessary to highlight the need for help amidst the rest of the state scrambling to understand coronavirus. Commissioner Toomey was able to work directly with local departments of health, state epidemiologists, and growers to provide direction and resources.
The unsung hero in all COVID-19 related hot spots has been the local community partnerships. GFVGA and members have worked with local health care providers, spoken with county commissioners, helped guide the identification of local self-quarantine sites, provided insight to regulatory agencies, and pointed growers to local resources to find a large majority of aide. It’s been during this concerted effort to keep agricultural employees safe that several lesser known migrant-focused health clinics and services have come to light. These more local resources are vital to serving the entire industry and its employees.
Many ag employees were having problems understanding the full scope of coronavirus and why so many restrictions were being implemented on farms. The University of GA Extension and GFVGA collaborated to create a video to help ag employees understand what coronavirus is, how to protect themselves, and why operational restrictions were being implemented. This combined effort ultimately created an easy to understand video in Spanish by native Mexican employees from UGA Extension with backgrounds in food systems and employee training. This video was one of many resources UGA Extension created and distributed specifically to an agricultural audience.
All these partnerships and aide were born out of an initial outreach for help and evolved into regular communication between organizations dedicated to serve the industry and the public. GFVGA hosted grower member only forums to share recommended guidance and allow operators to share practices and ask questions. GFVGA then carried messages and identified needs to several organizations for answers and direction.
The Spring of 2020 delivered to produce owners and operators regularly changing regulation and guidance, lots of best practices and COVID-19 updates, and constantly changing delivery dates for the infrared touchless thermometers. It is the hope of this private-public collaboration to continue work to craft sound yet applicable guidance. Additionally, we are working to create easy to use tools that will help make regulatory guidance easy to approach and apply. We are working to declutter websites and offer sustainable resources and direction.
As we look back at March and April of 2020 for Georgia’s produce industry, it was full of fear, unknowns, unprecedented government responses, and the food supply chain coming to a standstill in the matter of a few days. The Fall in the southeast is usually unpredictable due to hurricanes, tornadoes, hail, and foreign imports flooding the market. Coronavirus is yet one additional variable we will have to manage. We are working to prepare Georgia’s produce industry with lessons learned and strong science. Together we are stronger.