The big news this week may have been the delivery of the first Covid vaccines, but we were also excited to get our first real rain at the farm. The rain wasn’t much — just over an inch — but it was enough to settle the deep dust, clear the air, and provide sufficient water that we were able to turn off our irrigation pumps for the first time since March. This is the latest date we’ve ever gotten our first “soaking” rain, and 2020 looks to end up as the driest calendar year in recorded history for both Winters and San Francisco.
The timing of the rain, which came on Friday night and then again all day Sunday, was also perfect. Our harvest crew is utterly unprepared for wet weather this year, and has been thoroughly enjoying the beautiful — and bizarrely unseasonal — sunny and warm days that we’ve been having for the last six weeks. While we do our best most winters to avoid working on the worst storm days, we haven’t even had to work in a light drizzle yet this year. Some of our staff have not even purchased rain gear yet, and it looks like they might not need it any time soon.
Up until now, every day it’s sunny and dry instead of cold and rainy means that Terra Firma’s staff has been out working in the fresh air, instead of cooped up inside their homes. This has made it pretty easy to maintain Covid safety. In reality, our employees face much higher risk from Covid when they are not at work. Our state government has made it official policy that if more than four people in a workplace become ill, the liability for those illnesses can be placed on the employer. But since most TFF employees have multiple relatives or friends who are co-workers, it would be difficult to discern whether someone had been infected at work or at home.
Terra Firma has had no Covid cases, and the agriculture industry in general has had very few big outbreaks in California — very likely due to the start of the pandemic corresponding with the start of the outdoor farm work season in mid-March this year. Most farmers I know consider this a huge stroke of luck, and are extremely concerned about the coming months, especially when the busy spring season starts again in March. Winter is the slow season for agriculture, when most people in the industry take their vacations. I am worried about people socializing indoors over the holidays and contracting the virus.
Farm workers are both essential and uniquely vulnerable to Covid. Many live in crowded multi-generational households that create ideal conditions for transmission of the virus. And they have a high incidence of pre-existing conditions that tend to worsen Covid outcomes. One would think that all of these factors would ensure that they would be given a relatively high priority for vaccination. But during a recent call I attended with our state senator, he indicated he had heard no discussion in the Capitol about giving farmworkers such priority. And in a story this week, KQED confirms that there is no statewide effort to do so. Instead, it will fall to individual counties to make these decisions.
Farmers and agriculture in general are consistently criticized and scrutinized by the media and by our elected officials in California for our employment practices. We’ve been doing a good job up until now trying to protect our staff from Covid while they are at work, but the more time that passes without a coordinated vaccination effort, the more likely an outbreak becomes. It’s frankly outrageous for the state to continue to hold us responsible when the ball is now in their court. They need to put a priority on protecting the people who have kept us fed during the pandemic, as soon as possible.