COVID-19: Farming Resources

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COVID-19 is a viral infectious disease caused by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Corona Virus 2 or SARS-CoV-2. COVID-19 has impacted over 100 countries all over the world and has been classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). At the moment, there is no cure for COVID-19.

In our home state of North Carolina, there have been over 300 cases (as of 3/19/2020) and measures such as social distancing, the closure of all K-12 schools and prohibition of gatherings of 50 or more people, restrictions on travel and several businesses have put into place to slow the spread of the virus. Farmers and agri-tourism will face multiple challenges, from feeding their communities amid concerns of contamination and spread to laying off staff and workers due to enforced closures.

We want to assure you that N.C. Cooperative Extension is still with you, and will help you to get through this crisis. 

Regulations are necessary to ‘buy’ time, to develop vaccines and enough testing possibilities, and to slow down the pandemic (‘flatten the curve’). Ignoring or downplaying the problem makes as little sense as engaging in a hysteria. Currently, to help mitigate the spread of the virus, many people, including many of us in Extension, are working from home. 

However, working from inside a home often is not an option in agriculture, especially not with the spring season upon us. We know that many emergency regulations and recommendations are already affecting your business, and will most likely have long-lasting effects on you and your neighbors.

Your company will be affected on several levels. In this document, we try to keep you updated on the most pressing questions and issues regarding the pandemic:

If part of your company has to be closed due to regulations:

  • Can sales be moved online?
  • Can we function as a ‘store’ rather than a tourism place?
  • How can I make sure that my staff will be able to pay their bills, even if I have to lay them off?
  • Are there possibilities for reimbursement from the state/federal government?

If part of your company (or all of it) is operational: 

  • What are the food safety concerns?
  • How do I have to organize my labor force?
  • How to manage and attract customers in a safe space, despite the pandemic?
  • Work-flow optimization and new technologies.
  • What are alternative sales options?
  • How can I help the community?

We have developed a comprehensive list of resources for you to use:

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1) General COVID-19 Knowledge

North Carolinas’ Governor Cooper as issued a stay-at-home order, going into effect on Mar 30, 5 p.m. As recognized by the Secretary of Agriculture as well as the Commissioner of NC, agriculture is an essential part of this country and our state. Agriculture employees who go to work, but should carry the Notice of Essential Food and Agriculture Employee (PDF) form with them at any time.

During the COVID-19 crisis, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) will continue to receive, store and ship USDA Foods and Farm to School produce to all eligible recipient agencies with changes to the operating procedure to enhance social distancing. Within the NCDA&CS, there is the Emergency Programs serves in a leadership capacity within the Department and works closely with local communities to support agrosecurity, agricultural emergency preparedness and recovery, and rapid response technology efforts by establishing public-private partnerships between vital government agencies, industry, and volunteers.

As this crisis carries out it is important to follow all updates. Newest research implies that SARS-CoV-2 can survive up to 3 hours in the air, and up to 1 day on cardboard and 2-3  days on stainless steel surfaces and plastic. Using protective measures are therefore extremely important. At the moment, the mitigation of this virus is key. We recommend to wear gloves when getting in contact with customers and perform distancing practices at all times. If possible, move contacts into open field settings. Washing hands frequently and not touching face and mouth parts are imperative for your own safety. 

Important Resources

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2) How Can I Help My Community?

The question of how to help your community is particularly difficult given the need to physically isolate ourselves from others. However, we are all in this together, and many people will need the help to get access to food and nutrition. As the ones who produce food, we have a responsibility to serve in a time of crisis. Several questions will have to be answered: How can communities come together when they can’t physically be in the same room or less than 6 feet apart? How can we work with organizations to make sure that the most vulnerable of our society will not go hungry? There are plenty of ways that people, particularly farmers, can help during these uncertain times.

For Farmers:

    • Take extra cautious food safety measures. We’ve outlined food safety regulations in the next chapter, but it is worth repeating that food safety measures mean more to the customer right now than they have in the past. Make sure that all employees are trained on proper handling and that they have easy access to sanitation measures while on the job. 
    • Support laid-off workers in any way you can. Given the fact that the H-2A labor force will be smaller this growing season, farms may be short of staff. If it makes sense for your business, consider hiring those in your community who are out of work during this crisis. 
    • Donate excess or “ugly” produce to food shelters. If you expect to have a surplus this season, or if you never know what to do with the produce that isn’t up to grocery store standard, consider donating. People may need more help now than they have in the past in terms of getting access to fresh produce. Talk to your local food shelters and ask if they could benefit from your donation.
    • Coordinate with your local farmers market to provide customers with the safest and healthiest shopping experience. If you sell your produce at a local farmers market, talk to those in charge about extra safety precautions that vendors and customers can take. Every farm and market will have different solutions according to community needs, so find what works best for the health of those around you. One solution farmers in the triangle have already taken is to convert to online ordering so customers can order online and then pick up a package of their produce in person. This minimizes the number of people who come into contact with produce, the customer, and yourself. Find resources for setting up online ordering below.
    • Communicate. It’s incredibly important to talk to your fellow community members. Open communication will help you understand the needs of your town and how you can best serve it. Whether it’s labor, supplies, or food, you won’t know how to provide assistance if you don’t know who needs help and what they need help with.
    • Join a food service program. Under the COVID-19 emergency statue, the USDA has issued waiver approvals enabling Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and National School Lunch Program Seamless Summer Option (SSO) sponsors to serve meals in a non-congregate setting and at school sites during school closures related to the coronavirus. Please get in contact with your local Farm Bureau representative to coordinate with those programs.
    • Please reach out to local churches and community leaders to support the needs of your community during this time.
    • Please find resources from CEFS to support our community. CEFS is establishing a list of resources for agricultural production, education, and consumers

For all of us:

Important Resources

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3) Food Safety

Regulations will impact harvest, packaging, transportation, and sales as well as consumer education on food safety. Natalie Seymour and Benjamin Chapman form North Carolina State University have developed a comprehensive guideline on food safety, which can be found here:  NC State University Farming Resources. The FDA as released temporary policy regarding preventative controls during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Important Resources

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4) Staff Management

The federal government is working on H2-A visas and the USDA has set up a special email to address to voice any concerns regarding H2-A labor: aglabor@usda.gov . Please email this address if you have any concerns about your H2-A labor force.

COVID-19 Restrictions on U.S. Visas and Entry

In general, while some businesses have to lay off labor, others are probably in need due to increased traffic. Please us the NC Farm Link homepage and contact your local Extension Agent if you are in need of labor of if you need to lay off people. You will help them and your community.

  • Make sure that all your stuff has Personal Protective Equipment available!
  • Develop a contingency plan for your staff.  Each producing company has no choice than to keep producing, otherwise business is over. Upholding the production of food is essential during a pandemic. However, to ensure the health of the public, all labor forces should obey regulations and recommendations. A contingency plan will help to organize and manage your labor force. Include full-time, temporary labor and H-2A workers into the plan. What are the responsibilities? How can you create physical and timely distance between your staff? Are there hygiene products available? How do you instruct staff on new work environments? Are there staff members who can work remotely? Who is essential, who can be working from home? How is staff transported? Will staff be tested for SARS-CoV-2?
  • Prepare for smaller work crews.  As of Monday (3/16), the U.S. embassy in Mexico City will no longer process people for the H-2A program who require in-person interviews. This includes people who did not participate in the program last year. The U.S. embassy in Kingston, Jamaica, has shut down completely, and international flights will shut down from 3/22 through 4/12. This could mean labor shortages throughout the state and country as growing seasons ramp up. Make a plan that recognizes the possibility of a labor shortage, and at the same time use local sources for potential labor. There is a good chance that local unemployment will increase over the coming weeks and months. Think about the following questions: What can you achieve if your typical staff is cut by 10% or 20%? What are your adjusted expectations in terms of harvesting, planting, weeding, and overall management capacity?
  • Maintain strong communication with your employees. The COVID-19 case is rapidly evolving, so it is important that you stay educated on any and all important information. It is just as important to then ensure that your employees are up-to-date on any information as it relates to their health, their work, and their families. The CDC has plenty of resources available, and links to resources in Spanish are listed at the end of this section. Consider printing out resources and posting them in break rooms, or printing out enough copies for everyone to have one. What’s most important is for everyone to stay educated, and for information to be passed along calmly.
  • What to do if an employee tests positive for SARS-CoV-2. The question of what to do if an employee falls ill is especially important for the agricultural sector. It’s important to keep in mind that many H-2A workers rely on hourly wages, and they often live in close quarters with fellow farmworkers. If one employee is sick, it is possible that others have been infected, too. Things to consider when developing a plan for workers with the virus could include: 
  • Talk to your local health department. They may have specific guidance on how to respond to a sick employee and instructions on how to keep yourself and your coworkers safe.
  • Consider your policies concerning paid or unpaid sick leave. For example, local health services may be overrun, so it is reasonable to reconsider a doctor’s note requirement in order to give someone the day off. Another question that may be worth asking is: because farmworkers rely on hourly wages, should I expand possibilities for paid sick leave so that workers feel better about reporting symptoms? Every farm operates differently, so review your policies and make the best decisions for the health and stability of your employees and yourself.
  • Sanitation practices are important whether an employee falls ill or not. But if one does, it is important to develop a plan that ensures all coworkers are not exposed to COVID-19. Things to consider are how frequently equipment and common spaces are cleaned, whether to transport farmworkers in one vehicle or multiple, etc.

Important Resources

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5) Supply Chain

Farmers face a difficult task feeding communities during this difficult time. Despite the need for healthy, fresh produce during a health crisis, the avenues that get produce to people are shrinking or closing down. Restaurants and farmers markets have shut down or reduced operations, and people’s food budgets are consumed by more nonperishables. While no concrete information has come out pertaining to how COVID-19 will affect the produce industry throughout the growing season, here are some things to consider:

  • Determine the best outlets for your product. The normal avenues between growers and consumers may change. For example, some farms may not be able to offer U-Pick anymore due to concerns over disease spread. Be prepared to find alternative ways to sell your produce. Start making connections with grocery stores, processing plants, and other companies that you normally wouldn’t have worked with if you foresee issues with your current outlets.
  • Look to your local communities. In times like these, it is almost always beneficial to look to your community for help. Whether that means selling directly to your neighbors, coordinating with farmers markets, or selling to smaller, locally owned stores, find people within your community who could support you and vice versa.
  • Prepare for price fluctuations. The FAO Food Price Index saw prices for cereals, vegetable oil, and meat drop from January to February. However, dairy and sugar prices increased. For now, it is unclear how COVID-19 will affect the vegetable, fruit, and wine industry, if at all. But it is still important to make business plans that would best respond to a drop in market price or demand for your products.

Important Resources

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6) Statewide Farmers-market status (3/25/2020)

What are your farmer’s markets doing in response to the outbreak? Here is a list of various markets throughout the state and their operating status (as of 3/24). We cannot cover every market and outlet in the state, so please make sure to check the status of your outlets if they are not listed below.

  • Asheville City Market: Closed until further notice
  • Carrboro Farmers Market: Open Saturdays 7 a.m. to 12 p.m.; and Wednesdays 3 – 6 p.m.
  • Chapel Hill Farmers Market: Open Saturdays 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.; see website for social distancing and sanitation protocol
  • Charlotte Regional Farmers Market: Open Tuesday-Saturday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Davidson Farmers Market: Closed until May 2, 2020, at the earliest
  • Durham Farmers Market: Closed until further notice
  • Eno River Farmers Market: Closed until further notice
  • Foothills Farmers Market: Opening day (4/4/2020) postponed; see their social media for vendor-specific sales and information
  • Gastonia Farmers Market: Opening April 4, 2020, as originally planned; all scheduled events postponed until further notice
  • Greensboro Farmers Curb Market: Closed until further notice; See website to get information on specific vendors
  • Hickory Farmers Market: Open Saturdays 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.
  • High County Food Hub: Open, order online Thursday through Monday, pick-up wednesday between 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m.
  • Holly Springs Farmers Market: Next market date is April 4, 2020
  • Lexington Farmers Market: Opening Day is May 2, 2020, as scheduled
  • Matthews Community Farmers Market: Open Saturdays 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.
  • Moore County Farmers Market: Open Thursdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • Mount Holly Farmers Market: Opening Day is May 9, 2020, as scheduled
  • Nash County Farmers Market in Rocky Mount: Open on Saturday, April 4th from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Piedmont Farmers Market: Open Saturdays 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. @ Winecoff location
  • Rutherford County Farmers Market: TBD; was open on Saturday (3/21) as a drive-through market; no updates on this weekend’s operation as of 3/25
  • Salisbury Farmers Market: Opening day is April 18, 2020, as scheduled
  • South Durham Farmers Market: Open Saturdays 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.
  • State Farmers Market (Raleigh): Open Monday-Saturday from 5 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Transylvania Farmers Market: Open Saturday 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. with drive-up service (see website for details)
  • Wake Forest Farmers Market: Open Saturdays 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.; see website for social distancing and sanitation protocol
  • Watauga County Farmers Market: Opening Day is May 2, 2020, as scheduled
  • Western Wake Farmers Market: Closed until April 11, 2020; hosting pre-order pickup stations at new location (see website for details)
  • WNC Farmers Market: Open daily 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Zebulon Farmers Market: Open Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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7) Financial Help

Many businesses will be affected financially by the COVID-19 pandemic. RAFI-USA will be offering emergency mini-grants for NC farmers who have experienced a drastic loss of income as a result of the virus and need immediate assistance for household expenses. The US Government has also signed into law phase 1 and phase 2 of the COVID-19 relief package (as of 3/20/20). Staff and hourly workers will also be affected by income losses. Several key points can be considered:

  • Can labor be used in other areas of my business?Staff members who plan events, serve food/beverages or who work on farm stands could be used for other tasks on the farm. Spring season is coming up and you might need help planting/harvesting.
  • Do you have business partners who could pick up some of your staff? Leaving staff unemployed is the last thing a small business owner wants to do, but during this pandemic it’s sometimes not avoidable. Finding other employment opportunities for them over the time will help your staff to survive this challenging time.
  • RAFI-USA has announced to help NC farmers by issuing mini-grants for affected businesses. Please sign up to receive updates via email directly from RAFI.
  • In connection with the Presidentially declared COVID-19 national emergency, USDA’s Rural Development has placed a foreclosure and eviction moratorium on all USDA Single Family Housing Direct (SFHD) loans for 60 days effective March 19, 2020. Under the moratorium, foreclosures on borrowers with USDA SFHD loans will be completely suspended. USDA will not initiate, process, or complete any foreclosures during this time. Similarly, evictions of persons from properties secured by USDA SFHD loans are also suspended for a period of 60 days.
  • Various other financial solutions have sprouted throughout communities, nonprofits, state governments, and the national government. Go to your state or local government’s website to find more information on financial resources. And see below for important resources that we have found for you.

Important Resources

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8) Alternative Sales

For farms that rely on local markets to sell their products, it may become difficult to make sales to their typical customers. Farmers markets are technically considered grocery stores, so they are not required to close down. But the typical clientele may be nervous to visit a farmers market, and some markets have closed down anyways in order to protect the health and safety of their community. Despite these roadblocks, there are plenty of options for farms to make sales and provide fresh meat and produce to people who especially need it during this health crisis.

    • First, talk to your farmers market to determine what resources they have available to you. Many markets throughout NC have already developed possible solutions for their vendors. If you haven’t already, talk to those in charge of the market you participate in. They may have procedures already in place to help you get your product to paying customers in an easy and safe way. They may also require collaboration or input from farmers, so prepare to offer any advice or help if they ask for it.
    • Consider a safe and healthy U-Pick option. For farms that can offer this type of experience, it’s important to take the necessary steps to keep yourself and your customers healthy. Take a look at the link entitled “COVID-19 FAQ for U-Pick Farms” for helpful information that will keep you and your clientele protected from virus transmission.
    • Set up alternative pick-up sites or coordinate delivery services. Alternative sites for pick-up can help farmers sell their produce if U-Pick, farmers markets, or grocery stores are out of the question. Establish a place customers can go to each week until things get back to normal. Or, if you have the capacity, consider delivering produce door-to-door.
    • Take online or call-in orders. Online ordering is another great way to minimize person-to-person interactions. There are plenty of free, online ordering form services (see below). Farmers can also consider creating a google form or taking calls for pre-orders. Register for a March webinar on creating a free, online store for your farm here. The webinar currently has four available sessions.
    • Communicate your alternative sales methods to customers. Communication can take place on your website, the market’s website, your social media, and/or email chains. Make sure to clearly communicate what products you’re offering, how people can place orders, how people can pay, the deadline for online orders, and where they can pick up their purchases. It’s also important to be up-front about how you are following food safety protocols.
    • Always follow health department guidance. Whether you continue to sell at a farmers market or if you’ve developed an alternative sales method, it is important to follow health and safety guidelines. Ensure that people interacting with customers in-person are aware of the precautions they need to take and are well supplied with the necessary sanitation supplies. See the health and safety resources listed below.

Important Resources

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9) Automation / Mechanization

Remote farming solutions and automated farming solutions can not only safe money, in a pandemic, when labor is sacred, possibly sick and hard to find, some solution might help to keep your business operationable. Several Ag-Tech Start-up companies offer remote watering, harvesting, and nutrition monitoring solutions. North Carolina has one of the highest densities of Ag Tech Companies and AgTech Clusters. We highly recommend for you to take advantage of this close proximity of innovation. Look at the solutions they have and evaluate if they make sense for you and your operation, during this pandemic and beyond. Possible solutions could be: Remote watering systems; Remote disease detection systems; Harvest worker GPS tracking and other solutions will be possible.

Tractor-based mechanized tasks are other ways to minimize the spread of COVID-19 on your farm, and possibly to save costs on a long-run. Mechanized hedging, flower and leaf pulling, tillage, and mechanized harvesting will require usually less labor.

Important Resources

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10) N.C. Cooperative Extension County Centers Update (3/25/2020)

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11) Agri-tourism and Viticulture Resources

  • Executive Order No. 118 – Section 1.(a)(vi) reads: “…restaurants are restricted to carry-out, drive-through, delivery, and onsite consumption in outdoor seating area, subject to mass gathering restrictions… Bars are directed to close…”
  • Executive Order No. 118 – Section 1.(b) reads: “…restaurants are defined as permitted food establishments, under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-248…”
  •  Executive Order No. 118 – Section 1.(c) reads: “…bars are defined as establishments that are not restaurants and that have a permit to sell alcoholic beverages for onsite consumption…”
  • Per ABC guidance, “All on-premise sales and consumption must stop. This includes patios and outdoor picnic tables.”

Wine Returns, Hand Sanitizer Production and TBB Approvals:

News and Resources from Hotel, Restaurant and Event Businesses:

Important Resources:

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We will keep this document updated over the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mark Hoffmann (Small Fruits Extension Specialist; mark_hoffmann@ncsu.edu)
Emma Volk (Research Technician, Small Fruits Research Group; evolk@ncsu.edu)
Xiaonan Shi (MS Student, Small Fruits Research Group; xshi8@ncsu.edu)
Rania Hassan (Horticulture Program Fruit Extension Group; rhhassan@ncsu.edu)

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