CONWAY — As the harvest seasons begins, farmers will have to comply with new safety requirements to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 among workers, but getting their hands on some of those supplies has been challenging.
Farmers in Skagit County will likely have enough hand sanitizer for the season thanks to a free distribution event held Thursday at Conway Feed.
Dozens of farmers carted away hundreds of boxes of hand sanitizer and masks at the giveaway, which was hosted by the Washington Farm Bureau. A total of 3,500 gallons of sanitizer was available.
Bre Elsey, associate director of government relations for the farm bureau, said the organization worked with Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, state Rep. Debra Lekanoff and others to secure the supplies.
With harvest season weeks away, it was important to get supplies to farmers quickly, she said.
“We have some farms with masks back-ordered for several months,” she said. “You have a situation where your crops aren’t going to get picked unless you can get materials you need.”
About an hour-and-a-half into the distribution, more than half the hand sanitizer had been claimed, Elsey said. The bureau may host a second distribution event in Skagit County if there is demand, she said.
It’s only a fraction of what is needed statewide.
“Out of 164,000 (agricultural workers) in the state, Farm Bureau was only allocated 25,000 (masks),” Elsey said. “It doesn’t meet the need of the entire state. We just hope that more comes in.”
Steve Schuh, owner of Schuh Farms west of Mount Vernon, anticipates the five gallons of hand sanitizer he picked up will last through the season. He said strawberry harvest on his farm is set to begin in early June, followed by raspberries, blackberries and marionberries later in the month.
The farm is figuring out how to maintain a safe distance of at least 6 feet between workers. One idea is to stagger workers every other row when needed, he said.
The farm plans to take employees’ temperatures every morning.
“As long as everyone is healthy when they come to work, I can’t foresee someone getting sick in the field,” he said.
Farms also must implement social distancing in other settings, such as during lunches and breaks, according to the state’s requirements. The guidelines recommend workers wear cloth or loose-fitting face masks, used in combination with physical distancing, but not as a substitute.
If physical distancing is not possible, employers must use physical barriers to separate workers, according to the requirements.
Skagit Valley Farm, which employs 170 workers during its busy season, took home 30 gallons of hand sanitizer, said Sharrie Nelson, the farm’s food safety manager.
She said early in the pandemic, the farm was unable to get what it needed for employees.
“It’s easier to get masks now and hand sanitizer, but we needed (the supplies) in March,” she said.
The farm is busy planting potatoes, as well as processing and packing potatoes from last season’s harvest, and it will begin harvest of field crops, such as broccoli, this summer.
“I have to give (Washington Farm Bureau) a big nod. For them to help out farmers is huge,” Nelson said.