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Covid-19’s Impact on Tobacco Farmers

December 11, 2020 |

Over the last few months, spread of the coronavirus impacted our lives in ways we never imagined or thought possible. Closed borders, stalled travel, shuttered businesses: Few industries and communities have been spared.


As we head into summer, tobacco farmers are hoping for the best while bracing themselves for the worst. While a cure and vaccine are still unavailable, most growers understand the necessity for precautions—to protect both themselves and their workers.


A Shaky Spring


In early spring, before the coronavirus hit home in the states, U.S. tobacco growers were already facing challenges. Johnson County, North Carolina, Extension director Bryant Spivey explains that marketing tobacco has been frustrating for American growers. “Our commodity prices are down, especially compared to Brazilian tobacco, which outsells U.S. tobacco 5 to 1 on price,” Spivey says.


In addition to the hardships of selling a pricier product, growers have had to adjust for the tariff situation with China. The trade dispute of last year seemed to be resolved for 2020, as restrictions had been lifted. However, facing serious coronavirus issues of their own, China was not focused on tobacco trade early in the season. Growers faced a serious delay in contracts, many finalized with just days to spare before having to prep the fields.


Hitting Home


In the middle of March, the virus truly started impacting Americans. Agriculture, an essential business, faced its own challenges. Tobacco growers, concerned with the upcoming season, were worried about their workers’ ability to get into the U.S. at all, especially with the brief closure of the Consulate.


Some farms have been anticipating a shortage of labor for the upcoming season. Norman Harrell, county Extension director in Wilson County, North Carolina, says that while growers in his area are already pretty efficient with their labor, they planned on becoming even more so. “I have talked to a few growers who have switched to carousel transplanters instead of clip transplanters to utilize less labor and a few who are going to use only one transplanter where in the past they might have used two,” Harrell explains.


Make a Plan


Growers are especially concerned about the health of their workers. How will they keep workers safe and healthy, and what will happen if Covid-19 hits their farm?


Most growers keep in contact with their state’s Grower’s Association and their county’s Extension office, both of which are excellent resources when it comes to preparation, updates on procedure and policy changes due to Covid-19.


One thing both organizations urge is for growers to make a plan. “Making a plan for the season with regards to the coronavirus should include training for workers on the virus and steps to protect themselves and others,” advises Harrell. Prevention of the virus is key, so having a plan and set rules in place can help keep the virus at bay. As the season progresses, it is important for farmers to stick to the plan and not become lax about any rules until the appropriate authorities indicate it is OK.


If housing migrant workers, it is very difficult if not impossible to social distance due to the close living quarters. Your plan should include a cleaning schedule to ensure the good hygiene of the common areas, especially the kitchen. Growers should also stress the importance of staying on the property to their workers. They should consider alternatives to limit a worker’s need to travel, such as ordering groceries to be delivered and minimizing runs to the store so that workers are not unnecessarily exposed.


In addition, growers should identify a quarantine area in case a worker shows signs of illness. Unfortunately, that can get tricky when you are employing a lot of workers. “Put a quarantine plan in place that accounts for when your number of workers is maxed,” Spivey advises.


Spread the Word


One of the most important things a grower can do to help their workers is have frequent and open communication. Get posters printed about how to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and post them throughout the camp. The posters should be in English and in Spanish. “Workers need to understand how important certain precautions are for their health,” Spivey says.


Also, keep in constant contact with crew leaders on the importance of staying safe so that they can relay that message to their workers. Some Extension offices are working on videos in English and Spanish that stress the importance of social distancing, good hygiene and being able to identify symptoms of the virus early. It might be helpful to show the video a few times to your workers to keep the information fresh as the country faces potential months of quarantine.


If It Hits Your Farm


Prior preparation is key if anyone on your farm becomes infected with Covid-19. Keep everyone on high alert for any of the symptoms, which include fever, cough and shortness of breath. If any of these symptoms present themselves, advise the person to remain self-isolated at home and then contact a medical provider.

The Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) Connections website recommends that growers prepare a disaster contingency plan in advance as well. Address issues such as: What would happen if half of your workforce was unable to work? Could neighboring farms share resources in an emergency? Who could manage temporarily if a key person took ill?


Pushing On


Jeffrey Lee, the owner of a tobacco farm in Johnson County, says that, so far, Covid-19 has not affected his growing schedule. However, as his workers start to arrive, he is planning for the worst while hoping for the best. “I’m going to keep communications open and advise my guys to stay together,” Lee says. “We’re on course to plant as of now and everything’s starting to fall into place. Let’s hope it stays that way.”


Ultimately, tobacco growers are used to challenges and have the ability to adapt and adjust. As long as growers stay on top of good procedures and policies when it comes to facing the coronavirus, they should be on track to have a successful growing season. “Growers are resilient,” Spivey says. “Yes, they are anxious about their workers getting here and staying healthy, but they are focused on getting ready and starting their season.”



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