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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.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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