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Farms Look for Answers As Coronavirus Threatens Workers

Workers from Sarver farms, right, wear protective masks, beside the onions, potatoes and vegetables they are selling to patrons driving by in their cars at the Greensburg Farmers' Market opening day, Saturday, April 25, 2020, in Greensburg, Pa.
Farms Look for Answers As Coronavirus Threatens Workers
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In normal times, farmers worry about the economy, the weather and being able to sell their crops. Now add the effects of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Now as harvest season nears in many parts of the United States, farmers are wondering if they will have workers to bring in their crops. And, if there are workers, how can they be kept safe?

One area known for its farming is the eastern state of Pennsylvania.

Adams and Franklin counties in rural Pennsylvania have some of the largest farms for fruit and berries.

"Generally, one of the biggest concerns right now… it's just access to workers," said Liam Migdail. He is with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, the largest farm organization in the state.

During harvest season, many farmers employ migrants to collect crops from their fields. Many are guest workers from Mexico or Central America. They move from one farm to the next, wherever they are needed.

The possible labor shortage comes from new restrictions on international workers because of COVID-19. Farmers are also wondering about what to do if their guest workers get sick.

"That would shut us down…if we all got the coronavirus, OK, nobody could work, the fruit falls on the ground," says Kay Hollabaugh. She is co-owner of Hollabaugh Bros., Inc., a family owned and operated fruit and vegetable farm in Butler Township.

For now, she added, her farm is trying to move forward and keep their workers "safe and healthy."

Some farmers say it is too early to tell if the new safety rules will affect their ability to harvest fruits and vegetables. At many farms, workers are to begin harvesting crops between May and July.

Farmer Chris Baugher said he does not know if he will have workers.

'Locals don't want the work'

In 2016, the fruit industry contributed $580 million to the Adams County economy. It also created 8,500 jobs and added $16.4 million in taxes, an agricultural study found.

An area called the South Mountain Fruit Belt produces 70 percent of Pennsylvania's total apple crop. That represents over 180 kilograms of apples a year.

In 2019, there were more than 1,800 guest workers in Pennsylvania through the federal government’s H-2A visa program.

Farmer Denton Benedict usually employs around 90 workers through this visa program.

The program lets agricultural employers hire workers from other countries to do temporary or seasonal work when local workers cannot be found.

"Not being able to find good help locally is the reason that we went to the H-2A program," said Baugher. He usually has over 20 people from Honduras working on his farm.

Kay Hollabaugh said local people do not want to do the work because they lack the skills and the work is physically demanding.

On March 20, the U.S. Department of State suspended visa services like in-person interviews at all embassies and offices overseas because of the coronavirus pandemic. A week later, it announced that H-2A workers could get visas without an interview. But it is still not clear if and how many H-2A workers will come to the United States.

"If we don't get our help…that would be devastating,” Benedict said.

A shortage of farm workers would also affect people in the United States. With less produce available, food prices could see large increases.

I’m Susan Shand.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in This Story

access - n. being able to get something you desire

guest - n. a visitor to one's home or business

shut - v. to close down

contribute - v. to add value to something

belt - n. a tract of land

hire - v. to employ

interview - n. to ask someone questions

devastate - v. to destroy