This year, the agricultural industry was thrown a curve ball with COVID-19. Now, as harvest season approaches, farmers are facing new questions about the availability of workers and how to keep them safe.

In farming, there are many unknowns. The economy, weather and customer demand can affect crops and ultimately a farmer’s bottom line.

This year, the agricultural industry was thrown a curve ball with COVID-19. Now, as harvest season approaches, farmers are facing new questions about the availability of workers and how to keep them safe.

The potential shortage comes from recent restrictions to international workers in light of COVID-19 and fears about what to do if too many employees get sick.

In Siskiyou County, none of the five confirmed virus cases were among farm workers, said Jim Smith, the agriculture commissioner. Keeping the agricultural laborers they have healthy “is pretty important,” he said.

Having enough workers could also be an issue, Smith said.

“There’s a big fear about what’s going to happen at harvest time” in September, when the need for labor will increase, he said. Also of concern is what will become of the potato crops as the stay-home order prompted by the pandemic cuts into the global demand for processed spud products.

“That’s impacting all of us,” Smith said.

Two of the crops the county grows are onions and high-quality potatoes that get sold into the food service business, including the potato chip industry in the Klamath Basin.

During the past two months, fast food sales have dropped sharply, and the cancellation of professional basketball, baseball and all sorts of other events have vastly reduced the number of venues where french fries are served. Even sports bars where customers would have munched on baskets of fries as they watched their favorite teams play are now shuttered.

“Reduced demand for those reduces the acreage that get raised,” Smith said.

Add in the extreme drought and resulting water allocation reduction and “that is going to have some massive impacts on our agricultural production also,” said Smith. “So, you’re looking at a two-edged sword that could be a major hamper to profitability for our agricultural enterprises.”

Michele Chandler writes for the Redding Record Searchlight/USA Today Network. 

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