Pictured: Rows of strawberries in Oxnard, CA. Photo courtesy of California Strawberry Commission. 

by Kimberly Rivers

kimberly@vcreporter.com

Ventura County is entering peak strawberry season in the midst of a global pandemic. Agricultural workers have been deemed essential and the unique requirements of social distancing and enhanced hygiene practices create new needs and challenges for those doing the harvesting.

“We are doing more, trying to make sure the guidance stays updated,” said Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director with the California Strawberry Commission (CSC), an agency of the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA). She said a current major focus in responding to the pandemic is it to “get up-to-date information” to the fields “as quickly as possible,” as procedures seem to be changing almost constantly. 

Other procedures related to food-borne illnesses are important, too, but O’Donnell stressed that there is no current evidence of novel coronavirus being transmitted through food. 

According to the CDFA website, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), California Department of Public Health and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), “have all stated that there are no reports at this time of human illnesses that suggests COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. The CDC is reporting that, in general, because of poor survivability of the coronavirus on surfaces, there is likely a low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated or frozen temperatures.” 

“The basis of all of this is a culture around food safety for the past 10 or 12 years,” O’Donnell said, which creates a strong foundation for responding to the current pandemic. The CSC has been providing training around not working while sick and regular hand washing for years. 

The most recent training in early March was slightly modified amid murmurs of the virus. “We modified our training to emphasize staying healthy, working healthy and hand washing.” Training materials include flip charts, signs and videos. 

“What I’m worried most about, it is the worst possible time for the pandemic to peak . . . at the same time that strawberry season is peaking,” said Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director with Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), a local organization that advocates for farmworker interests and other issues. “The best news is right now, there is not a huge outbreak among local farmers, yet.” 

California’s strawberry season starts now in Oxnard. “The season rolls up the coast to Santa Maria, then to Salinas. During that peak season there is a powerful incentive [for farmworkers] to work extremely hard and fast, sometimes at the expense of their own safety,” said Zucker. He explained that for many farmworkers, spring means that winter savings have been drained, and the busy strawberry season is the opportunity to “get financially back on their feet.” 

During strawberry season, most growing operations shift to paying workers a piece-rate rather than hourly wage. Zucker said Oxnard workers are paid about $2 for a large flat of strawberries. 

“Safety precautions — like staying six feet apart or washing hands for 20 seconds — can easily fall by the wayside. Twenty seconds can feel like an eternity.” Even with many growers taking more steps aligned with best practices during the pandemic, there is still concern. 

“They are doing better than usual. I’ll tell you, normally we get a lot of complaints,” Zucker said, noting that hand-washing stations often run out of soap or paper towels. But he said it seems “most growers are now taking extra precautions.”  

Local agencies such as the Farmworker Resource Program are assisting in getting information out to workers. 30,000 educational outreach materials have been inserted into paycheck envelopes, and videos are pushed out using WhatsApp, to reach those who may not read or write. The materials are all provided in English, Spanish and Mixtec. 

O’Donnell said these methods have been used in the past, and were heightened during the Thomas, Woolsey and Hill fires. She added that the idea of only working when you’re healthy is normal protocol, and all field crews should understand that if they are sick at all to stay home. “We have stressed that for a really long time.” 

But she said the CSC is not responsible for regulation or ensuring all workers see or hear their information, or that employers properly implement them. 

“We don’t have any regulatory authority over farmworker hygiene, or adherence to state/federal laws on sick leave,” said Ed Williams, Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner. He confirmed hygiene practices would be under the authority of Ventura County Public Health and then usually enforced by law enforcement. Labor issues like sick leave would fall under the purview of state and federal labor boards. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (CalOSHA) investigates complaints related to workplace safety filed by employees or representatives of employees. 

Inspections by any of those regulatory agencies are complaint driven. “No one wants to file a claim during the pandemic . . . if you file with CalOSHA, they don’t do unannounced inspections,” said Zucker. “The industry will often say ‘we are overregulated, look at all the agencies.’ It’s a patchwork riddled with holes.” 

Part of the pandemic response in agriculture in the county has involved weekly calls with stakeholders including advocates, growers and agencies — all trying to stay ahead of the virus. 

Zucker points to a few local growers who are getting it right. “Brokaw Nursery and ranch, they immediately expanded sick leave. Good Farms and Reiter, they are the biggest ag employer in Ventura County, they are a huge mega ag corporation and have all these affiliated farms [in the county]. Some do a good job, and as a company they put out some good health directives to their contractors.” But, he said, “At the end of the day, it’s the retailer, the distributor level . . . If Driscoll was doing random spot inspections, a lot more of the strawberry farms would be taking it really seriously.” He did offer that even the large companies may lack the capacity to do those kinds of checks. “I would be curious to see if they are inspecting their own supply chain.” 

Essential worker cards

“Agricultural Essential Worker cards are intended to ease employees’ concerns when traveling to and from work,” said Rosa Gonzalez, community liaison with the Ventura County Executive Office. The card program is voluntary, free and was created in response to farmworkers expressing fear about being stopped and questioned going to and from work during stay-at-home orders. 

Ventura County farmworker cards.

The cards are being issued through the county of Ventura, the Farmworker Resource Program and the Agricultural Commissioner’s office and declare the holder of the card is “an essential worker for critical infrastructure.” 

“For some workers it is a relief to have them because there are rumors spreading that police are going to stop people while travelling.,’ said Zucker, emphasizing that these are only rumors. The police are not stopping people just for driving. “But something is causing those rumors to spread.” 

A farmworker shared with Zucker that their supervisor in the field said they would “ ‘be stopped if you don’t carry this card.’ They told other people. Good information and education is needed . . . They are well meaning and intended to address a need, workers were afraid of an authority stopping them.” But he says the rollout of the cards seems to be spreading the rumor that police are stopping people and without the additional information would “do more harm that good.” 

“Farmworkers are providing food on our tables and sustaining our nation’s food supply during this pandemic,” said Gonzalez. “Their work is critically important during this time and throughout the year. We don’t want them to be afraid. We hope these cards ease their fears.”

Ventura County Farmworker Resource Program information: 805-385-1899, email HSA-AGFRP@ventura.org or visit www.ventura.org/human-services-agency/farmworker-resources/

CalOSHA rules for workplace safety for agricultural work environments: www.dir.ca.gov/dosh/Coronavirus/COVID-19-Infection-Prevention-in-Agriculture.pdf