The value of strong relationships between farmworkers and management has never been greater, Peter O'Driscoll and Vic Smith believe.
The Packer’s Tom Karst visited May 5 with Peter O’Driscoll, executive director of the Equitable Food Initiative and Vic Smith, CEO of the JV Smith Cos., a large grower of fresh produce crops in the U.S. and Mexico.
In addition to discussing broader issues such as the economic impact of COVID-19 on growers, O’Driscoll and Smith talked about the value of EFI training and certification in the context of the pandemic.
EFI’s leadership teams are comprised of workers and management officials to talk through issues that come with the unprecedented crisis, O’Driscoll said.
Putting in place requirements of social distancing requires extra costs and investments at the grower and packinghouse level and results in lower productivity. Having in place established worker/management leadership teams helps navigate those sensitive issues, O’Driscoll said.
“I think it’s the difference between somebody kind of top-down saying these are the rules, versus developing new procedures, workers and managers together,” he said.
Smith said his company’s Mexican operation in Baja California is close to receiving its EFI certification after investing in the program for about two years. Having put in EFI worker/management teams has helped its operation during the crisis, Smith said.
“It’s not a memo, not a group meeting with the business manager or HR (representative); (worker leaders) have been invaluable to communicate, how serious the situation is and the things that we need to do to guarantee their safety and also be able to help them navigate a pretty troubling time,” Smith said.
In California’s central coast region, Smith said housing needs are the number one concern for H-2A workers, and the industry as a whole is working to secure hotel rooms to help workers isolate and recover if needed.
“We’re having to cut back the density in everything we do; housing, transportation, basically cut in half the density and then be very careful with all the procedures associated with day to day life,” he said.
Growers have had to disk some fields of vegetables set to harvest in April May and June because of diminished foodservice demand.
“We grow over 32,000 acres on an annual basis and the amount of acres that we disked from mid-March through this week has been frightening,” he said. “I think we’re starting to level out; I think June will be a challenge in (the leafy greens) sector, but I think adjustments were definitely made in time for the first of July,” Smith said the industry is expecting the market to stabilize beginning in July.
“Right now, there’s been big demand for the product considering we lost a huge sector of the business,” Smith said.
O’Driscoll said retailers and all buyers must recognize the costs that growers are bearing on their farms and packinghouses to make sure that workers are safe.
“From the retail perspective, the real concern is continuity of demand,” O’Driscoll said. “On the one hand, the retail has got to deal with this increased cost profile and decreased productivity (but) at the same time, they have got to recognize that if growers like Vic don’t implement the social distancing measures, then the possibility of widespread outbreaks among the agricultural workforce could decimate availability of product a month to three months down the road,” he said.
“We’re all in this together, we’ve got to do this,” O’Driscoll said.