Heading into last October, Bob and Kari Egger, who own the Pumpkin Patch on Sauvie Island in Portland, received some unexpected and disheartening news.
The farm, which employs 200 people during U-pick pumpkin season, would be forced to shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Eggers were informed by a local health enforcement manager from the state Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
Except that wasn't the case. Miscommunication between regulatory agencies led to contradictory guidelines issued for pumpkin patches just days before they were scheduled to open, which Kari Egger said caused a panic until the rules were finally clarified at the last minute.
Egger shared the story during a two-hour virtual town hall hosted by the Oregon Farm Bureau with Oregon OSHA Administrator Michael Wood and Department of Agriculture Director Alexis Taylor. The anecdote highlighted just one of many problems producers have had complying with COVID-19 workplace restrictions.
"We're not out to be bad guys," Egger said of farmers. "We care more about our employees than you ever could (know)."
And while Wood chalked up that particular instance to a "screwup" that was quickly resolved, others in the town hall wondered how they can continue to operate safely and economically given the unique challenges facing agriculture.
Sean Naumes, who grows pears and winegrapes near Medford, asked specifically about OSHA's temporary rule for migrant and seasonal farm labor housing, and how farms can expand or maximize their on-farm housing space.
The rule prohibits unrelated workers from sharing bunk beds, and requires all beds be at least 6 feet apart or separated by an impermeable barrier, such as Plexiglass. Naumes said that has reduced the capacity at his camp from 258 to a maximum of 215 people.
To make matters worse, Naumes said, several large wildfires that ravaged cities like Phoenix and Talent in Southern Oregon have further exacerbated the area's housing crunch.
An 'invasion of privacy'
The Farm Bureau has petitioned OSHA to amend some of the housing standards — such as the bunk bed requirement — to minimize displacing farmworkers, and potentially increasing their exposure to the virus in unregulated environments. Oregon OSHA is reviewing the petition, according to a spokesman.
Molly McCargar, of Pearmine Farms in Gervais, said the housing rule also raises privacy concerns for workers by increasing the number of times farms must clean and sanitize high-touch surfaces in labor camps.
"It does feel like an invasion of privacy," McCargar said. "Farmworkers can take care of themselves, and it doesn't feel like we're allowing them to do that with some of these rules."
Devon Wells, who grows apples, pears, cherries and peaches and operates a fruit packing house near Hood River, asked point-blank how family farms can survive in the current regulatory environment. "We're finding it very difficult to comply with some of these regulations," Wells said. "It really makes it difficult for our industry to think the state has our best interests in mind."
In response, Wood and Taylor emphasized the need for farms and state agencies to work together as partners. From the beginning of the pandemic, Wood said OSHA's process has been to reach out to farms and other employers first when they receive a complaint. Usually, he said half of those complaints don't actually turn up any violations.
OSHA also provides consultation services, Wood said. Farmers can reach out anytime if they have questions. Consultations are free and confidential. "That's one of the hallmarks of the program here in Oregon," Wood said. "It is a no-fault, no-risk program from the employer's perspective."
Wood said the urgency of the pandemic forced agencies to adopt regulations more quickly than they normally would like. "I'm not going to claim we got everything exactly right, but I believe the impact of COVID-19 has been broad across all sorts of industry sectors," he said.
Taylor said the pandemic has provided one opportunity in that it has renewed the public's interest in where their food comes from. She said part of ODA's mission is to tell farmers' stories, which in turn helps to increase confidence and trust in the industry.
"It's reliant on you to tell the story, but we want to be there as partners to help you tell that story to the public," Taylor said.
The Capital Press is a Pamplin Media Group news partner.
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