Agriculture is a critical industry
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has deemed agriculture and the supply of food as a critical industry in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a recent update on the coronavirus, President Trump read from the DHS directive, saying “Health care, pharmaceuticals and food supply, you have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”
The report, Memorandum on Identification of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workers During COVID-19 Response, was issued by Christopher Krebs, director of the Cyber and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) at DHS. The report labels agriculture and the food supply chain as a critical industry during the COVID-19 state of emergency.
What does a designation of critical infrastructure mean to working people? It means that our government has determined that people must eat during and after the initial emergency, and that we are prioritizing the production, processing, and delivery of food to keep the supply chain full. In other industries, employees are being asked to work from home and many are being laid off.
The people that help produce and process our food are being asked to go to work and maintain a normal work schedule to keep food on our grocery store shelves. Certain restrictions that have been imposed on most of us will not apply to farm workers, canneries, fisheries, meat processors, etc. People who put food on the shelf at the retail store are part of the industry and are considered critical — as is the grower, the processor, the truck driver, and the grocer — all are important to the supply of nutritious food for the country. While many foods are currently in short supply on the shelves of our grocery stores because of panic buying, there is actually plenty of food available — it only needs to get to the retailer. This designation food and agriculture as a critical industry will most certainly help fill the supply chain.
So, what does this label of “critical infrastructure” mean to our farmers in the Northeast? Many work restrictions during the pandemic will not apply to farm businesses in the region. Farmers are expected to continue to produce food and fiber, care for livestock, and feed the nation. Driving hour restrictions have been waived by the U.S. Department of Transportation for truck drivers hauling livestock and perishables. In the short term, it means that we must produce, process, and transport food so that the grocery supply chain is not interrupted.
Large animal veterinarians will still come to the farm. Maybe more importantly, our farmers will be able to get the crops in the ground and growing for the spring planting. Farmers will be able to buy seed, fertilizer, pesticides, and other necessary supplies and have them delivered to the farm. Farmers will be able to buy farm equipment and have a new tractor delivered, or get equipment fixed. Farm labor can work without many of the restrictions created to control the coronavirus. Syrup can be bottled and farm stands can open.
Burton Eller, legislative director at the National Grange, said in a recent video posted to Facebook that he believes the next challenge for the industry is the same challenge we had before coronavirus: the ability to find farm labor. The H2A visa and other guest worker visas are still important issues that remain to be addressed.