As this year’s potato harvest begins in Skagit County, farms have had to adjust their operations to meet COVID-19 safety requirements.
Physical distancing, masks and other measures are required under Gov. Jay Inslee’s requirements for agricultural businesses. The measures are aimed at protecting the health and safety of agricultural workers.
Don McMoran, director of the Washington State University Skagit County Extension, said farms are making sure they check the necessary boxes to comply with the new aspects of doing business.
The extension estimates about 12,000 acres of potatoes are grown in Skagit County and are worth about $5,000 an acre, making it the county’s most valuable crop at $60 million a year, McMoran said.
Outdoor harvesting work is less of a COVID-19 health concern than the packing and shipping operations that take place inside large packing plants that are called potato sheds.
Workers typically stand shoulder-to-shoulder sorting, sizing and packing potatoes, a situation in which physical distancing can be difficult, said Darrin Morrison, partner at Smith & Morrison Farms south of Mount Vernon.
“We had to revamp some of our protocols to keep people socially distanced,” he said. “That’s been the biggest headache in keeping a packing shed running.”
Morrison said Smith & Morrison Farms has installed plexiglass and plastic dividers to separate workers. It has also taken steps to separate workers during breaks.
Like all businesses, the facility must screen workers for signs and symptoms of COVID-19 at the start of each day.
Hughes Farms, located on Farm-to-Market Road west of Mount Vernon, has staggered start and break times for workers to reduce crowding in high-traffic areas, said partner Michael Hughes.
Another rule requires businesses to sanitize shared equipment between uses.
“We’re just trying to follow the governor’s guidance and do the best we can,” Hughes said.
At Norm Nelson Inc., located in Burlington, the farm has been able to space workers 6 feet apart without losing efficiency, said financial officer Ryan Schols.
He said the farm’s purchase of automated equipment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic has helped decrease the number of workers in one area.
The farm has enough masks and hand sanitizer, in part thanks to a giveaway of safety supplies hosted by the Washington Farm Bureau in May in Conway, Schols said.
“The last thing we want is to get anyone sick, so we’re taking all precautions the state has recommended,” he said.
No COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported at agricultural settings in Skagit County, though some have contracted the disease. Skagit County Public Health has not released data on the number of cases tied to farms and agricultural facilities.
“Farms with (positive cases) have been quick to isolate those individuals and quarantine them and are following the instructions set forth by the health department,” McMoran said. “Our farms are doing a pretty good job trying to follow rules and regulations.”
Morrison said if a facility had to shut down temporarily due to a large number of COVID-19 cases, it would be a hardship on the business.
“That would be a very costly consequence,” he said.
As for this year’s markets for potatoes, demand is high, Morrison said.
He said while demand has fallen for potatoes in restaurants, schools and hotels, more people are buying potatoes for cooking at home.
“There’s been a number of people who have relearned to cook at home,” he said. “We get calls on how you cook a potato.”