This story was originally published by Columbia Community Connection.
The story of how one orchard stepped up to protect its workers during the height of Covid-19
When Covid-19 hit in the spring of 2020, Erin Roby of Legacy Orchard in Hood River County knew the harvest season would be different than ever before. As farmworkers arrived, Roby adapted to meet OSHA regulations to ensure everyone was protected. This included reducing the density of her accommodations, securing more forms of transportation, ensuring all vans were equipped with sanitizer, and purchasing more hand washing stations and bathrooms, among other precautions.
Still, she worried about the health and wellbeing of her employees and their families. “[I thought], is everybody safe?” says Roby. “Are they worried, sleeping?”
Roby participates in the H-2A program, which offers temporary work visas to agricultural workers outside the United States. Legacy Orchard has a relationship with a recruiter based in the US who hosts recruiting events in Mexico, and pre-pandemic, Roby would visit Mexico every year to meet with her workers. She’s had a an excellent employee retention rate with 90% of the same employees returning annually for the last eight years.
“We communicate regularly throughout year, send Facebook messages. We get lots of referrals from people [we know].”
Protecting her workers during the pandemic was a top priority, so when Ashley Thompson of OSU Extension got in touch with Roby about joining a Workers Safety Workgroup led by The Next Door, Inc., Roby took the opportunity. The Workgroup met once a week and served as a place for orchardists to communicate their challenges and concerns to community organizations like The Next Door and Community Health Workers from various agencies. Together, they would all work to address those concerns.
For example, when orchard employees were confused about the safety and efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccine, The Next Door, Hood River County Health Department, and other community partners put together a fact sheet to address the topic.
Many organizations collaborated in creative ways to support the safety of migrant and seasonal farmworkers (MSFWs) during harvest seasons in 2020 and 2021. For example, because workers were required to socially distance inside their housing accommodations, bunk beds were removed, which reduced already limited housing options. In one response, Hood River Shelter Services reached out to the Workgroup and hatched a plan for growers to lease warming shelter pallet homes that were not in use. The Gorge Makers Collective also reached out to offer homemade masks at the very beginning of the pandemic when it was difficult to get medical masks. The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB), a state agency, came to workgroup meetings and answered questions about reimbursements for expenses related to Covid-19 safety, like barriers, extra beds, and extra bathrooms.
Beyond the concrete ideas and collaborations, Roby also came away with another important takeaway. “The amount of energy and true care and effort all these different groups brought - I didn’t expect it,” says Roby. “They cared as much about our employees as we do.”
When the Covid vaccine became available in the spring of 2021, Roby and her team surveyed all employees and asked if they would be interested in getting the vaccine. Roby’s team utilized One Community Health’s webpage specifically for growers, which answered a lot of questions about the vaccine. Roby and her team then registered her employees and gave them paid time off to get the vaccine. She also tried to schedule vaccination appointments so her employees could get the vaccines together rather than alone. Roby has not had any outbreaks at Legacy.
While the community of orchardists in the Columbia Gorge has always been tight knit and supportive, the pandemic increased awareness of everyone’s needs and more communication helped make the community even tighter. For example, if someone had a worker but nowhere to house them, another grower might offer an empty quarantine house. Or if someone knew there was Clorox at the grocery store, they’d send a group text saying “go now!”.
“It felt really good to be a part of this community that was so intentionally involved with each other, trying to help,” says Roby.
As the Covid pandemic continues into 2022 with the new Omicron variant, there are still many unknowns. But Legacy Orchard made it successfully through the challenges of 2021, which gives Roby hope.
“We made a big dent in the challenge,” says Roby. “No one got sick. Everyone was happy, safe, healthy, got to return home to families. I feel like yes, we did it!”