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Farm Workers Can't Keep Their Distance, And Can't Get Into The U.S. To Work


Spring is usually the start of the planting season, but with the coronavirus pandemic spreading, farms and farmworkers are having a tough time. Here's Sarah Gonzalez with our Planet Money podcast.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: The spring farming season starts April 1.

MATT HARSH: Yeah, it's here. It's now.

GONZALEZ: That's Matt Harsh, a farmer in Maryland.

HARSH: So we grow apples, peaches, plums, cherries, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, winter squash, garlic, greens, lots and lots of different things.

GONZALEZ: Every April 1, he brings up 20 to 25 farmworkers from Mexico on H-2A visas. But because of coronavirus concerns, the U.S. has basically shut down their visa services to protect staff. So for farmworkers, only those who have gotten these visas before and don't need in-person interviews can come. Matt Harsh found eight workers who qualified. And on Friday, he rented a van to drive them from Monterrey, Mexico to Smithsburg, Md. We called them on their drive up.



GONZALEZ: Hola, Emilio (ph).

LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: Emilio Luna (ph) works in the fields.

LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

He'd been on the road three days when we spoke to him.

LUNA: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALEZ: Close to North Carolina, ah, OK.

They all sleep sitting up in the van and just stop for gas and food, which Luna says is takeout only. By Tuesday, they were all on Matt Harsh's farm picking blueberries and brussel sprouts.

HARSH: There are eight of them in this group.

GONZALEZ: But don't you need 20?

HARSH: We're just trying to put out the immediate fire here (laughter).

GONZALEZ: OK, there are certain crops that don't require a ton of labor, so we really don't need to worry about those crops because robots are on it.

DIANE CHARLTON: So your field crops, like wheat, corn, those are going to be mechanized.

GONZALEZ: Diane Charlton is a professor in the agricultural economics department at Montana State University.

CHARLTON: But most of our fruits and vegetables are harvested by hand.

GONZALEZ: Most of our fruits and vegetables - pretty much everything besides some grapes and wheat and corn - are picked by hand. So if farmworkers get sick, Miguel Arias doesn't even want to think about it.

MIGUEL ARIAS: You know, this last week, I have slept an average of two hours a day.

GONZALEZ: Arias grew up as a farmworker himself and says that the risk of infection is not at work in the fields where they're spread out. It's at home. His old neighbor is a farmworker. And every season, 20 or so farm workers move into her house. They pay $300 a bed for the season.

ARIAS: It's actually not a room. It's a garage. So if you can imagine a two-car garage...

GONZALEZ: Filled with beds.

ARIAS: ...Bed next to a bed, like a kid-sized bed, a series of bunk beds and also a kitchen constructed and two additional bedrooms.

GONZALEZ: Twenty people living in one garage. Arias says water is the most expensive commodity in these farmworker homes, which makes it hard to follow CDC guidelines.

ARIAS: So it's very routine and normal that the farmworkers don't shower after every day in the job site because the water will become so expensive. That's more expensive than power - just the amount of toilet flushes.

CHARLTON: You know, as testing becomes more available, farmworkers should probably be part of the priority.

GONZALEZ: That's economist Diane Charlton again. She says this will matter more as the season goes on. Most fruits and vegetables are harvested between June to October.

CHARLTON: If we can make a lot of good progress on that end in the next few weeks, we may have very little impact on grocery store shelves.

GONZALEZ: So stay home, everyone. And don't touch a farmer.

CHARLTON: (Laughter).

GONZALEZ: Do not get our farmers sick.


GONZALEZ: That's what I'm hearing.

CHARLTON: Sounds good.

GONZALEZ: Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah Gonzalez
Sarah Gonzalez is a host and reporter with Planet Money, NPR's award-winning podcast that finds creative, entertaining ways to make sense of the big, complicated forces that move our economy. She joined the team in April 2018.