Delbert Bland, president and owner of Bland Farms, checks out the Vidalia onion crop. The company has put a number of safety regulations in place for H-2A workers in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, he says. ( Courtesy Bland Farms )

Labor is a top concern when it comes to the effects of the new coronavirus on Georgia’s produce industry — besides worker safety and customer demand.

Growers heard that the consulates were closing mid-March in countries where they source their H-2A seasonal agricultural guestworkers, barring anyone from entering the U.S. to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Charles Hall, executive director of Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

And May is a peak harvesting month for many Georgia growers.

But eventually, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Department of Homeland Security made special arrangements to bring in H-2A workers.

“The labor situation is beginning to work itself out,” Hall said April 26.

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Workers who had been in the H-2A visa program before didn’t have to go through lengthy interviews, while people who were new to the program did.

“It was almost like a TSA checkpoint,” Hall said. “Most workers did get in on time, but there are still some problems with several growers waiting on workers.”

Overall, enough workers got in to harvest the crops, he said.

Paying the workers at least 75% of their contracts is yet another challenge, however, for companies that lost a huge chunk of business because of foodservice shut-downs.

“If (a contract) is for eight weeks of pay and at four weeks, you can’t sell any more crops, you’ve got more problems to deal with,” Hall said, “and then maybe they can’t get back into Mexico because they close the border, maybe, or border issues either way.”

Bland Farms, Glennville, Ga., was able to get its desired number of workers and is following many Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, said Delbert Bland, president and owner.

Bland Farms precautions for H-2A workers include:

  • Taking worker temperatures every morning; 
  • Spacing workers as close to six feet apart as possible while still getting the job done;
  • Arranging for groceries to be supplied to the workers to limit their outside contact; 
  • Isolating workers into groups of 20 to limit exposure in case any one person tests positive; and 
  • Providing special equipment and staff to disinfect their living quarters and work spaces.

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Shuman Farms, Reidsville, Ga., is also adhering to government and Produce Marketing Association recommendations as much as possible, “especially where it pertains to housing and transportation to ensure we have a safe working environment, providing the safest product for our consumers,” said John Shuman, president and CEO.

Shuman Farms precautions include assigning an employee, with proper disposal gloves and N95 respirator, to serve drinking water to crew members from the communal water receptacle. 

Another employee is responsible for sanitizing the portable restrooms and handwashing stations throughout the day. Also, they’re sanitizing inside and outside employee transportation vehicles after pickup and dropoff.

Heath Wetherington, director of operations for Baker Farms, Norman Park, Ga., said what this nation is facing is unknown, but Georgia’s fresh fruit and vegetable suppliers aren’t stopping.

“We’re not backing up. We’re not slowing down,” Wetherington said. 

“We’re doing everything in our power to make sure the food will be there, and people can rest easy that there’s going to be food, whether it’s on your kitchen table or a restaurant’s kitchen table. 

“There’s going to be food somewhere, somehow. We’re gonna have it.” 

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