COVID stresses Washington State fruit harvests

The current pandemic has hit agriculture and food production hard. Through the spring and summer, facilities that process fruits and vegetables and meats suffered large coronavirus outbreaks, and in many cases had to temporarily shut down.

This pattern was seen in central Washington’s Yakima Valley as well, where fruit-packing plants were hit with a wave of COVID infection in the summer. Cases spread from the crowded, busy processing plants to family and community members, in an area where many workers earn their livelihood either in the fields and orchards, or in food manufacturing.

At the start of the summer, as COVID spread and Yakima County racked up some of the highest case-counts in Washington State, workers at multiple packing plants went on strike. They demanded personal protective equipment for their workplaces, as well as more safety measures, along with hazard pay as essential workers.

In late October, the fall harvest was in full swing in the irrigated orchards of this prime apple-growing region, which also produces bumper crops of cherries and pears.

“Cosmic Crisp and a lot of really great varieties are still on until mid-November,” said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Washington Growers League, which supports fruit producers with regulatory compliance and provides housing for farm workers across the region.

Gempler told that the summer of 2020 was one of the most difficult the industry has experienced in decades. There were strikes — which lasted for several weeks in some cases — and prolonged shortages of PPE. “Everything having to do with COVID protection was back-ordered,” Gempler said, “the masks you needed, the face shields you needed, the hand-washing stations—you couldn’t get it. So people were fabricating things in their shops.”

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