QUINCY, Grant County — Last spring’s arrival of COVID-19 loomed as a disruptive new threat to those who make their living from the land. Some feared that the virus would sweep the ranks of the agricultural labor force, leaving county farmers and growers short-handed to harvest crops and pick fruit.
This year, the virus sickened some workers and caused upheaval in key potato markets. But no Grant County workers died, according to the county health district, and COVID-19 did not cripple county agriculture, which in a typical year generates more than $1 billion in sales.
“This was new for everybody — taking people’s temperatures and keeping people separate certainly is not natural,” said Lisa Karstetter, who with husband Kent Karstetter grows fruit and other crops on nearly 1,500 acres. “We all came together to do the best we could with the cards we were dealt.”
The infection risks to workers prompted the state Department of Agriculture in the spring to hammer out new health rules, a process that early on generated fierce debate as growers protested a ban on bunk beds — favored by farmworker advocates — that they said would leave them without enough lodging to house all their workers. In final rules, the growers were allowed to continue to use the bunk beds as long as they created separate groups of workers who would sleep, eat and labor in the fields together and not intermingle with one another.
At the Karstetter’s RKJ Farms, the health precautions included more bathrooms and sanitation supplies, reduced seating on buses, more support staff and periodic coronavirus testing. The Karstetters also set aside one of four camp houses as an isolation unit that could be used if any of the 42 workers, who arrived from Mexico under temporary work visas and were grouped together in pods of 14, should fall sick.
All of this added significant costs that Karstetters said represented a good investment. They noted that none of the labor camp workers, as well as 280 local workers who commuted to the farm, tested positive.
Kent Karstetter said he felt a huge weight lifted off his shoulders when all the crops finally were harvested.
“It was one of the most nerve-wracking years that I’ve been through,” said Karstetter, who briefly grew ill with COVID-19 just after the fall apple harvest.
Hundreds of cases
At other farms and orchards, virus outbreaks did flare. Through the growing season, hundreds of Grant County laborers tested positive, although few had to be hospitalized, according to Theresa Adkinson, administrator of the Grant County Public Health District.
Those who tested positive included Jose Hernandez Reyes, a Moses Lake resident who drives a tractor at an orchard. In early September, his symptoms included dizziness, fatigue and fever. Hernandez Reyes soon recovered. But he said the illness cost him his job of eight years because he continued to work for two days after he got a test and before he learned of the positive result.
Typically, clinics tell people to isolate while awaiting test results. Hernandez Reyes said he was not told to do so. A foreman was angry that Hernandez Reyes had not stayed home, and let him go.
Hernandez Reyes said he lost some 10 days of pay during the peak of the harvest season. But he said that the biggest blow was to his emotional health. He took pride in spraying pesticides, hauling bins full of fruit and other tractor jobs. Suddenly, with a phone call, he was gone.
“They couldn’t fire me for my work ethic. They fired me because of COVID,” said Hernandez Reyes, who now works at another orchard.
Potato harvest upheaval
When COVID-19 took hold in the spring, potato markets quickly emerged as a big trouble spot for farmers. This is the top potato-producing county in the country. Most of the spuds are specialized varieties sent to processors for french fries and other frozen products.
As restaurants shut down and sports events were canceled, demand for these potatoes plummeted and processors cut back on acreage contracts with growers.
Weber Farms, a Grant County family operation, typically grows potatoes on more than 4,500 acres, but this year had to drop plantings by 1,000 acres. The reduced harvest has slashed their cash flow needed to make payments on millions of dollars of loans for tractors, harvesters and other high-priced equipment.
The family also had trouble selling what was left of last year’s crop. So they had to drop the prices and divert some potatoes from processing to supermarkets.
“We had potatoes we had to sell for a huge discount,” said Adam Weber, a third-generation county potato farmer.
Processors are now buying this year’s crop. On a December afternoon, a processor truck pulled up to a Weber Farms storage unit where potatoes were stacked 20 feet high, and drove away with 30 tons.
But after the market shocks of the past year, Weber remains wary about his prospects for the new year.
“We’ve never had this happen before. There are going to be several family farms that go under this year,” Weber said.