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COVID-19

Northwest growers grapple with COVID-19 as spring harvests start to come in

Anna King May 15, 2020
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Jim Middleton farms asparagus north of Pasco, Wash. He says he’s worried about keeping his workers healthy, especially ones in tighter quarters in his operation’s vegetable packing shed. Anna King/NW News Network
COVID-19

Northwest growers grapple with COVID-19 as spring harvests start to come in

Anna King May 15, 2020
Heard on:
Jim Middleton farms asparagus north of Pasco, Wash. He says he’s worried about keeping his workers healthy, especially ones in tighter quarters in his operation’s vegetable packing shed. Anna King/NW News Network
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Northwest growers are scrambling to figure out how to work around the COVID-19 pandemic and still bring in the coming harvest of fruits and vegetables. Farm workers are considered essential because they are part of the food supply chain. But how do you keep workers social distanced in a tight packing shed?

North of Pasco, Washington, Jim Middleton’s farm crew is washing
stacks of plastic boxes, called lugs. They rattle as they fall to the concrete, then they’re washed and picked up again. Soon, they’ll be packed with fresh-cut asparagus. The packing shed is a very small space, but workers can keep their distance from one another in the field.

Stacked like colorful Legos, plastic boxes called lugs will soon be filled with asparagus. (Anna King/NW News Network)

“I don’t think it will be that bad,” Middleton said. “The crews are only one or two people, they are usually family members. We’re not ever congregating into big groups.”

But his asparagus harvest is brief and intense. It goes on every day for 10 weeks. Just one or two virus cases could cripple his operation.

“So, we can’t take a two-week break in case people get sick,” Middleton said.
“Without a regular workforce every single day, we’re going to get backed up
quickly and have a lot of product that we wouldn’t be able to pack or sell — that could get upside down in a big hurry.”

Phil Clouse, with ​Gourmet Trading Company​ in Pasco, Washington, said he’s mandating all workers in the processing plant wear protective gear like hairnets, aprons, gloves and hand-made masks.

Freshly planted furrows span out across the Great Basin as farmers get ready for the coming season with worries of COVID-19 spreading in central and eastern Washington. (Anna King/NW News Network)

They’ll also clean the entire large facility more than the usual twice-daily.

“We’re going to check people for temperatures coming to work,” Clouse said. Anybody that shows a fever won’t be let inside.

“We’ll ask them to go
home and quarantine themselves.”

Still to come are some of the Northwest’s most intensive hand-picked crops: cherries and ​blueberries​. They’ll be ready to harvest starting later this month and in June.

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