What does the COVID-19 pandemic mean for local farmers?

As the outbreak of the novel coronavirus continues to disrupt virtually all industries, farmers are calling on the federal government to ensure a crucial lifeline for their operations remains in place for the upcoming season.

Federal officials last week suspended in-person processing of new H-2A agricultural guest worker visas in Mexico in an effort to reduce transmission of the virus. Though waivers may be available for workers who have previously come to the U.S., agricultural advocates are concerned about the labor supply with the spring planting season now weeks away.

According to data from the U.S. Department of State, a total of 204,801 H2-A visas were issued in FY-2019. Of those, the majority — 188,758 — came from Mexico. New York Farm Bureau spokesman Steve Ammerman said Tuesday that last year, approximately 8,100 guest workers came to work on New York state farms under the H-2A program.

In a statement, the bureau said halting the hiring of foreign workers could delay planting and harvesting on local farms and thus result in lower yield.

In a letter to President Donald Trump last week, NYFB president David Fisher stressed the importance of these workers, who play a crucial role in ensuring food security for the nation. “While we are not asking the Administration to jeopardize public health and safety or border security, NYFB requests that the Department of Labor and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services ensure that all H-2A visa applications are reviewed and acted upon in a timely manner to ensure the flow of approved H-2A workers into the U.S.,” Mr. Fisher wrote. “It is imperative that no borders, where there have not been widespread cases of Covid-19, be completely shut to allow the entry of these essential workers.”

The Times Review Media Group interviewed Rob Carpenter, the administrative director for the Long Island Farm Bureau, recently. His answers have been edited for space and clarity.

Times Review: There is quite a lot of uncertainty surrounding the H-2A program. To what extent do our local farmers rely on this program?

Rob Carpenter: There are approximately 7,500 workers employed in agriculture in Suffolk County. A fair amount of them are residents, and there are operations that rely on H-2A workers from various countries around the world, and other programs as well, such as the J1 visa program for students.

TR: If the migrant workers face delays in arriving, what will happen?

RC: It’s too early to answer that question. Most workers for fruit and vegetable farms will be coming in the next few weeks as farmers start to gear up for the season. We still don’t know what’s going to happen.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and NYFB have been working very closely with the USDA and the State Department to request that these workers be expedited through the process wherever possible to ensure the farmers have a good, reliable workforce that’s going to be here through the end of the growing season. I’m fairly optimistic that some of these things are going to happen.

TR: This will clearly impact farmers’ bottom lines. The Small Business Administration has announced some loans available for business owners. Is there any help for farmers?

RC: I have heard the SBA will come out with some programs, but they’re still in development — what the qualifications are, what the interest might be. We’re hoping that stimulus packages will be available for the farm community as well. 

TR: What are some of the economic impacts we’re seeing for local farmers?

RC: It’s a very difficult situation for many of our small businesses that are shut down, particularly the restaurants that support our farmers. The LIFB is working to find solutions to help these operations find other outlets and other opportunities. I don’t know what the impact is going to be [overall], but I’m hoping that this is just a short-term bump in the road. There’s a great unknown at this point, but America is going to rebound and be strong again.

TR: Would we be having a different conversation if, say, the virus outbreak occurred during a different point in the local growing season?

RC: It may be a different story if we were at peak season, harvest. There’s no real good time to have something like this, but from our perspective it’s still early. There’s not a lot of tourism happening now — that would really impact the farmers greatly, as well as other businesses.

TR: Greenhouses are growing, some ag operations are up and running. Are there any precautions in place to reduce possible virus spread? Isn’t working in agriculture already a form of social distancing?

RC: Farmers are keenly aware of what’s going on and doing everything in their power to protect their workers, from social distancing to cleansing everything and being cautious as to who’s allowed on the farm.

TR: Shelves at grocery stores are being wiped clean — is there a threat to the food supply?

RC: Police, first responders, health care workers, and so many others are on the front lines of this and doing a tremendous job. What nobody is talking about is that there’s always food on the shelves. It’s a testament to farmers, who are keeping America fed. I hope people realize that and don’t take it for granted going forward.

TR: Speaking of going forward, what’s the takeaway for when this ends?

RC: The importance of keeping our farmers vibrant and keeping them in business. The best way to do this is to continue supporting local: local wines, oysters, poultry, fruits and vegetables. A big thank you to all the residents of Suffolk County who are continuing to do that [amid the outbreak].