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SPECIAL REPORT: Yuma’s agriculture business during a pandemic

News 11's Arlette Yousif delivers an in-depth look at the lucrative and laborious agriculture industry

YUMA, Ariz. (KYMA, KECY) - Yuma is best known for its massive multi-billion dollar agriculture industry. Local day laborers are getting ready for the new season along with thousands of migrant field workers making their way back from Salinas, California as well as Mexico.

With the busiest time of year for agriculture upon us, safety measures are more crucial than before as COVID forever changed the world we live in.

Yuma, Arizona... the winter lettuce capital of the world, also known for its extreme heat. Something farm workers know first hand. But the COVID pandemic has made things even more difficult.

Day laborers toiling our agriculture fields in the heat to provide leafy greens to an entire nation, while doing their best to follow COVID safety guidelines.

"When we’re around a lot of people nearby, then it’s important for us to keep wearing our masks for the safety of ourselves, our products, and everyone. And also, thank god we have been able to receive the proper vaccine," says Amigo Farms Irrigator Sergio Gonzalez.

Valentin Sierra with Amigo Farms says some safety measures were already in place, even before the pandemic.

"The good thing about working in agriculture is we pretty much practice a lot of that stuff through good agricultural practices, regarding food safety. We would, you know, we sanitize equipment. We, you know, we teach our employees to recognize symptoms of illnesses. They can't work in the field when they're sick, you know, with produce. So a lot of the stuff we were already doing in the company, the only thing that we had to add on was, you know, a face mask and social distancing and sanitizing a little bit more than normal," explains Amigo Farms Food Safety Director Valentin Sierra.

Other measures like adding extra transportation to allow for social distancing while traveling were also implemented.

"Normally these vans fit 15 people. We cut it in half. We'd only bring in seven and we'd have to bring two more vans per crew," says Sierra.

But everyone seems to be on board and now farmworkers are eligible to receive up to $600 in grant money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reimburse for personal protective equipment (PPE) expenses that may have been paid out of pocket since the beginning of the pandemic.

"The moral is to keep protecting ourselves and try to maintain our distance," explains Gonzalez.

Amigo Farms is not the only company taking things seriously.

"There were huge changes made for dealing with keeping workers safe or testing was the big effort trying to, how do we get people tested when they're coming in on a daily basis?" says Yuma Center of Excellence for Desert Agriculture Executive Director Paul Brierley.

But testing quickly became a regular practice. When the vaccine rolled out, it too was incorporated.

"They made arrangements for clinics to come out or for buses to go in and get everybody vaccinated. The fact that they work outside, I think made a big difference. So they actually found that most of the transmission and whatnot of the disease was happening when people were at home," explains Brierley.

While there have been COVID-related illnesses and deaths within the agriculture business, the Yuma County Public Health Services District reports that they do not track the people impacted by employment type.

Fast-forward to today, field workers are making their way back from Salinas, California as well as Mexico to bring food to the table.

According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, job growth in the agriculture industry is expected to grow 2% over the next eight years. Although less than average, that's nearly 15,400 more jobs.

But there aren’t as many day laborers as before.

"One of our crews has actually been with the company like I said, 15 years, but the other crew is a new crew and he's been having trouble trying to get people to come along," says Sierra.

Even without COVID weather is a serious factor.

"Right now in the summertime, it’s important to wear long sleeves, light colors, and hydrate sufficiently," explains Gonzalez.

Working at night during the summer is another strategy. Schedules move back to day shifts during the winter.

"We wait ’til sun up, that helps them warm up. They bundle up, you know, put on extra jackets and, you know, beanies and gloves and they wear the face mask, you know, not just for COVID, but to keep them warm," says Sierra.

Adapting to the different changes in climate in order to sow, water, tend to, and harvest our fields.

Eventually, shipping produce across the country, sometimes even the world, from our fields to your table… even during these times of COVID.

While some field workers travel with the seasons to continue working, some go to Mexico to enjoy time with their families, waiting for the new season to start again.

Top Stories / Yuma County
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Arlette Yousif

Arlette Yousif joined KYMA in November 2020 as a Multi Media Journalist. She holds a BA in Journalism with a minor in Film.

You can reach out to Arlette for at arlette.yousif@kecytv.com.

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