Horticultural crop businesses need best management practices to survive COVID-19

April 16, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As horticultural crop producers approach their busiest time of year, it has become apparent that the COVID-19 outbreak may impact their ability to source inputs, engage workers and operate their businesses in a normal fashion, according to a Penn State Extension expert. 

“The financial success of horticultural crop producers is dependent upon their ability to recruit, train and retain a healthy and robust workforce,” said Tom Ford, extension educator specializing in the production of tree fruits, small fruits and vegetables. “The adage, ‘profitability starts with people,’ might be perceived as slightly dated, but no businesses succeed without good people working for them.”

Ford urges horticultural crop producers to review “Interim Guidance for Business and Employers,” found on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control website, which provides business owners and operators with science-based information that can be used to guide their businesses during this outbreak. The guidance, Ford suggested, will help horticultural crops producers to keep their business running through this difficult period.

Ford also recommends the following actions:

— Emphasize frequent handwashing. It’s the first line of defense against COVID-19. 

“As an industry, we have rarely emphasized personal hygiene when training our employees, except during harvest,” he said, adding that the first step for growers is to download this poster from Penn State Extension. “This poster was developed for the food service and produce industries, but it is relevant in our battle to limit the spread of COVID-19. The poster, available in both English and Spanish, can be printed and displayed throughout a shop, lunchroom, restroom facilities and in trucks.”

— Place hand sanitizer dispensers throughout operations. Make sure that antibacterial soap and single-use towels are stocked in every bathroom. If port-a-potties are being used, ensure that single-use towels, water and hand soap are available for worker use. Make sure that all trucks have hand-sanitation supplies, including water for handwashing, antibacterial soap and single-use towels.

“At the very least, keep a supply of hand sanitizer on each delivery vehicle and tractor,” Ford said.

— Common spaces such as the breakroom, locker room and restroom are places for workers to potentially be exposed to diseases such as COVID-19. Make sure common spaces in the workplace, such as restrooms and breakrooms, and often-touched surfaces such doorknobs and tables, are cleaned and sanitized regularly. Businesses should develop cleaning schedules and cleaning protocols for work facilities. 

“A few dollars spent on cleaning your facility each day may prevent your entire workforce from contracting COVID-19,” Ford said.

fruit in boxes

Because worker interaction with customers will occur at farmers markets and roadside stands, horticultural crop producers should encourage their workers to maintain a buffer or space between the customer and themselves.

IMAGE: ccharmon/Flickr

— Sanitize daily coolers containing drinking water for employees, and provide single-use cups that can be discarded after each drink. Workers should be advised to wash their hands for 20 seconds or longer before and after accessing the cooler. 

— Insist that employees come to work wearing clean clothes each day. Soiled clothes are more likely to carry human pathogens, including the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

— Worker-safety training should not occur in large group settings at this time. During this outbreak, producers should consider setting up individualized worker-safety training sessions on laptops, with sanitized keyboards in offices or rooms that have been cleaned/sanitized between use.

— Emphasize that employees must stay home if they are feeling ill. This is vital, Ford noted.

“Because many farm workers live paycheck to paycheck, they are very reluctant to call off work,” he said. “Some people infected with COVID-19 may not feel bad enough to be bed-ridden, so they could come to work with a low-grade fever and what they believe to be cold symptoms. To protect their entire work crew, horticulture crop producers should encourage all workers, irrespective of job title or work deadlines, to call off if they are dealing with any illness.”

While it may put constraints on a business temporarily, operations will not be able to continue if a producer’s entire workforce has to self-quarantine from COVID-19 for 14 days. If possible, Ford explained, a horticulture business should offer some form of sick leave to workers to discourage their attendance when they feel ill. 

“If no sick leave is offered, expect some employees to show up for work sick,” he said. “In those cases, a producer should be strong and send them home.”

— Fruit growers may routinely send out six to eight workers into an orchard to hand-thin or to harvest fruit. To mitigate risk and to protect the health of employees, producers should consider reducing the size of those crews and strive to keep the same crew members working together each day. Consideration should be given to staggering the arrival and departure times of crews to minimize physical contact between individual crew members. 

“While this may seem like an over-reaction, I have seen workers share cigarettes and drinks, and even finish each other’s breakfasts, at the farm,” Ford said. “Smaller crew size, in my opinion, is a means to compartmentalize the workforce into small isolatable units.”

— Many fruit operations have a diverse workforce that may include workers who are more susceptible to developing serious complications from a COVID-19 infection, Ford pointed out. Workers over the age of 60 and those who have underlying medical issues are expected to be the most severely impacted by COVID-19.

If possible, he advises, horticultural crop producers should offer these at-risk workers alternative assignments that would minimize their exposure to the coronavirus from other crew members. Producers might consider utilizing higher-risk employees to sanitize and clean packing lines, sanitize picking containers, or manage weeds.

— Because worker interaction with customers will occur at farmers markets and roadside stands, horticultural crop producers should encourage their workers to maintain a buffer or space between the customer and themselves, in accordance with CDC recommendations, Ford said. 

— Finally, producers should consider developing an emergency plan for their business operations in case key managers become ill with COVID-19. “They should ask themselves, ‘Who will assume payroll responsibilities if my payroll clerk becomes ill, or who will manage workflow, oversee the pest management program, or oversee day-to-day operations if key individuals become incapacitated in any way?’”

Producers should prepare a plan before a crisis develops, Ford added, and then hope that they never need to enact the emergency plan that they developed.

Penn State Extension is developing a list of COVID-19 resources for Spanish-speaking agricultural employees that will be released soon. In the interim, see the CDC website for English and/or Spanish translations discussing symptoms of COVID-19 infection:

Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Symptoms and Testing, and Enfermedad del Coronavirus 2019 (COVID‑19) Síntomas.

About Penn State Extension 

Penn State Extension is dedicated to translating scientific research into real-world applications to drive progress. In support of Penn State's land-grant mission, extension programs serve individuals, businesses and communities, while promoting a vibrant food and fiber system, a clean environment, and a healthier population in Pennsylvania and beyond. With support from federal, state and county governments, the organization has a tradition of bringing unbiased information and support to the citizens of Pennsylvania for more than 100 years.

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Last Updated April 17, 2020