SO THIS IS WHAT FARMING IS LIKE! – Selena Ruiz, 4, was at Gordon Skagit Farms with her grandparents last Thursday. The tractors and decades old farm machinery and vehicles are a small part of the fun and variety of harvest days throughout the Skagit Valley. And, yes, there are pumpkins to pick, bins full of them. 	         – Photo by Ken Vest
SO THIS IS WHAT FARMING IS LIKE! – Selena Ruiz, 4, was at Gordon Skagit Farms with her grandparents last Thursday. The tractors and decades old farm machinery and vehicles are a small part of the fun and variety of harvest days throughout the Skagit Valley. And, yes, there are pumpkins to pick, bins full of them. – Photo by Ken Vest

La Conner-area farmers used Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other measures to keep COVID-19 out of their workforce. 

Many also embraced the U.S. government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to stave off financial problems. Funds could be used to cover payroll, rent and utilities over a 24-week period. 

The Hedlins, on the town’s east edge, credit the PPP program with facilitating a quick pivot from field crops to row crops. 

“We had to go from some big grain contracts to ramping up produce, which is much more labor intensive,” said Serena Hedlin. “It allowed us to get some people on the payroll that we would have had a lot of trouble getting otherwise.” 

The PPP program “fit pretty well for the farm season,” she noted. “Unlike restaurants, we had jobs for people, so it worked out.” 

Ray deVries of Ralph’s Greenhouse had his doubts about the program, but he is glad he let his accountant talk him into it. 

Accepting PPP money helped Ralph’s “take the risk of growing the same crops as last year, even though we didn’t know where the market was going,” he said. 

Most of his PPP went to payroll, with a bit for utilities. “It was a good investment by the government that allowed us to keep people in jobs and the economy to somewhat keep going.” 

“We do not want to rely on the government to stay in business, but this year we had no choice,” said Jason Vander Kooy of Harmony Dairy. 

Milk prices dropped so low last spring that they only covered about 60% of the cost of producing milk. “Pretty much every farmer I know in the dairy business” turned to PPP to cover the gap, Vander Kooy said. 

Not every farm that applied actually received PPP funds. Some did not qualify. 

With only one non-family employee, the Mesman Dairy turned to the USDA’s Margin Protection Program for Dairies, which kicks in when the price of milk is significantly lower than the cost of feed. With help from the Farm Service Administration, “we got one milk loss payment and should be getting another,” said Chelsy Mesman. 

The funds helped pay for grain, fuel, chemical products to clean the robotic milking system and utilities. 

PPE and COVID-19 prevention measures 

In the socially distant dairy business, family members do most of the work, the milk truck comes late at night and “our only employee scrapes manure by himself early in the morning,” said Mesman.

At the Vander Kooy dairy, most workers work alone outdoors, with plenty of masks and sanitizer available. 

Flower growers do not cluster while picking, said Beth Hailey of Dona Flora farms. “Sam is in the zinnias, my granddaughter is in the dahlias, and far away from each other. We also eat far apart.” 

Workers for row crop growers like Ralph’s and the Hedlins keep plenty of distance between them or work in pods of family members. Masks up and windows down is the rule in vans and buses moving workers between fields. Multiple wash lines and packing stations also promote safety. 

Workers at Thulen Farms cut every other row of brussels sprouts. In the Pioneer Potatoes potato shed, clear plexiglass separates gloved and masked workers in the sorting area, workers use handwashing stations during every break and the whole packing plant is disinfected every night. 

“We don’t allow people in the office or plant anymore,” said John Thulen. “When a truck driver calls for a pickup, we bring the paperwork to them.” 

When masks were in short supply, the Thulens gave workers gloves, masks and aprons. More PPE was available later from the Washington Farm Bureau and from Don McMoran, of Washington State University Extension, who distributed a thousand N95 masks to farmers while smoke blanketed the county in September. 

All these measures have been documented for third-party audits that Thulen’s wholesale and retail customers require to ensure that the packing facility and farm follow strict food safety protocols. 

While there have been no cases of COVID-19 in the Thulen workforce, contact tracers did survey employees in March and April. “A lot of people who work for me are from two-job families, and during the outbreak at Draper Valley we were notified that spouses of some of our workers tested positive,” said Thulen. 

Most COVID-19 cases on Skagit farms were the result of after-hours family gatherings among employees. “Several operations were down on human power” because the workers and anyone they had come in contact with in the previous 14 days had to be quarantined, said McMoran. 

“Farmers really stepped up to the plate this year to make sure they and their workers followed rules and regulations set forth by the government, Working around these issues has been difficult but ultimately very successful,” he said, “and I’m hopeful that local farmers will be rewarded for those efforts with this year’s crop.”