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Ag seen as critical amid new COVID-19 orders

Stay-at-home order expanded in California, but farming is one of 16 needed U.S. infrastructure sectors

Jobs related to food and agriculture are among the 16 economic sectors identified as "critical infrastructure" under new statewide stay-at-home orders issued late March 19 by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

"The supply chain must continue, and Californians must have access to such necessities as food, prescriptions and health care," Newsom wrote in his executive order. "When people need to leave their homes or places of residence ... they should at all times practice social distancing."

State officials note the federa Coronavirus Task Force has labeled food supply as a “critical infrastructure industry,” and that workers in this sector “have a special responsibility to maintain your normal work schedule.”

"Our farms and ranches, their suppliers, the food processing facilities, the delivery companies, the retailers… every member of our food supply chain is also a member of the affected community," state Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross said in a blog post. "Of course there will be some disruptions along the way as workforces are affected and contingency plans are activated. But we’ve planned for this, from grower to consumer, to ensure that disruptions are manageable and that Californians continue to have a safe, reliable and nutritious food supply."

CDFA inspectors and field workers are engaging with local officials to make sure that ag-related activities are recognized as critical, she said.

'The harvest continues'

"Rest assured that the harvest continues – as it does every day of the year here in California," Ross wrote. "Likewise, it is essential that critical infrastructure and supply chains are protected, and that all elements pertaining to the food supply remain operational, including our workforce that is vital to the food supply."

Newsom's order requires all Californians to stay at home unless they're accessing or working in a critical service. It also orders health care facilities to prioritize care toward the sickest patients.

In addition to food production, other industries listed as critical are health care and public health, transportation systems, information technology, water, nuclear reactors, government facilities, energy, financial, defense, dams, critical manufacturing, communications, chemical, and commercial facilities.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus that originated in Wuhan, China has already heavily affected some California agricultural sectors, including wine.

On March 15, Newsom ordered all wineries and other drinking establishments to stop serving liquor on-site amid the virus scare. The order followed hard shelter-in-place requirements that were put in place by local officials in the San Francisco Bay area.

Wineries operating

Officials from the San Francisco-based Wine Institute told members they interpreted the local orders to allow wineries to operate as essential businesses in the food sector, meaning they could engage in vineyard management, wine production operations, bottling, warehousing, sales, delivery and shipping, but not wine tasting.

"We are working with the governor’s office to implement recommendations to reduce the exposure and spread of the disease by limiting visitor access to winery tasting rooms for purchase and pick up only, intensifying cleaning and sanitation procedures and following the guidance of the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and California Department of Health," the organization stated.

With agriculture designated “critical infrastructure” by federal and state governments, the California Farm Bureau Federation is promising to help the state’s farmers, ranchers and agricultural businesses with resources during the statewide stay-at-home order. The organization has redoubled its work with employers to make sure they’re aware of the latest guidelines from health officials and government agencies, its leaders say.

“Based on the questions we’ve been receiving from farmers, we know they’re being diligent in having employees engage in sanitary practices,” CFBF President Jamie Johansson said. “That’s already a high priority for reasons both of food safety and employee health. Farmers take a number of steps on a regular basis to protect themselves, their employees, their families and their crops.

“We encourage local, state and federal agencies to interpret the guidelines as broadly as practicable, to be sure everyone in agriculture can stay on the job, producing food and farm products during this crisis," he said.

County Farm Bureaus around California and CFBF will remain operational, the organization advises.

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