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COVID-19 FAQs for Farmers

* UPDATED 4/2/2020 *

This is a challenging time for our entire community.  As farmers and ranchers, you provide an essential service feeding the public with fresh, nutritious foods.  It’s very important that you are informed about the COVID-19 outbreak and its implications for your operation.  If you have a question not answered below, please contact Vince Trotter at tvtrotter@ucanr.edu or call
(415) 473-3281. 

At the end of this FAQ, you can also find a list of useful links to various public health agencies.  You may want to visit them for regular updates.

Shelter in Place

Will the Shelter in Place order for Marin County prevent me or my employees from doing our work?

As with Marin’s original Shelter at Home Order, the new order (passed on 3/31) names food cultivation, including farming, livestock, and fishing as essential business activities during this period.  This includes the movement of employees outside of their residences so that these businesses can continue to offer their goods and services. 

HOWEVER, all essential businesses must develop a social distancing protocol before April 3.  Follow these 3 steps to meet this requirement:

  1. Download the template for a Social Distancing Protocol here. (Scroll to the bottom and click on “Appendix A – downloadable for businesses”)
  2. Fill out the template, identifying all applicable practices for your farm/ranch. If there are other systems/practices you are using, you can add them on a new page at the bottom of the document.
  3. Review the protocols in the document with your employees and give them copies of it.
  4. Keep the protocol posted at the entrance where employees or any members of the public access the farm/ranch.

For more information on Marin County’s Shelter in Place order, consult the FAQ (both English and Spanish) on the county’s Coronavirus Information Page.

Is cheesemaking considered an essential business activity?

If you have a retail space associated with the cheesemaking, this would fall under the allowance for ”…other establishments engaged in the retail sale of unprepared food…” found in item ii of the definition of “Essential Businesses”.  If you operate a cheese plant purely for sale/distribution to restaurants, retailers or even direct to consumers, then your continued operation would fall under item xx of the definition of “Essential Businesses” – “Businesses that have the primary function of shipping or delivering groceries, food, or other goods directly to residences or businesses.”

You will need to complete a Social Distancing Protocol by 4/3/20 (see previous question) and comply with best practices identified by Marin County Environmental Health Department .  If you operate a retail space for purchase of your cheese, you should implement the practices for food/beverage venues identified by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH)

For more information on Marin County’s Shelter in Place order, consult the FAQ (both English and Spanish) on the county’s Coronavirus Information Page.

What about the new statewide Order?

California Executive Order N-33-20 issued on March 19th provides a “floor” for local shelter-in-place orders.  Counties and municipalities may have more strict guidelines.

Statewide, everyone is required to stay at home except as needed to access “essential services” or to work in one of those industries.  This includes grocery stores and farmers markets as well as restaurants (pick-up or delivery only) pharmacies, banks, gas stations and laundromats.  Also exempted are the federally recognized “Essential Critical Infrastructure”.  This allows for the continuation of food and agriculture-related activities included farming/ranching, food processing, distribution and the many businesses that support food and ag such as fertilizer dealers, feed stores, irrigation and tractor supplies, etc.  If you work in one of these areas, you do not need written authorization to travel to work and engage in related activities.  Keep in mind, however, outside of this and the access to grocery stores, etc., you are expected to stay at home and follow all best practices around social distancing and sanitation.

Will slaughter plants still be operating?  My animals won’t wait.

The USDA has announced that meat, poultry and egg inspection services will continue as normal.  They have put into place measures to ensure that employee absenteeism will not adversely affect industry operations.  This statement from Dr. Mindy Brashears (USDA Deputy Undersecretary for Food Safety) and Greg Ibach (USDA Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs) asserts that they are focused on maintaining timely delivery of services.

Local cut-and-wrap providers are considered essential businesses during this period of Shelter in Place.  As such, they are allowed to continue with normal operations.  Contact your processor directly to know how or if their services have been impacted.  Some businesses may have trouble maintaining adequate staffing due to closures of schools and daycares as well as the general directives to send any sick employees home.

What will happen to my buyers during the Shelter in Place order?

Certified farmers markets, farm and produce stands, as well as supermarkets, grocery stores and restaurants providing food for delivery or carry-out are all considered essential businesses and may continue to operate.  To find out what changes in practice may be required at your local farmers market, consult with your Market Manager and follow any food facility guidance from county Environmental Health Services.  California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has also posted policies and recommendations for food facilities.

The Agricultural Institute of Marin has published two handy videos demonstrating best practices for farmers markets:

Food Safety

Do I need to change my food safety practices in the wake of COVID-19 emergency?

The USDA has stated that “Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19. Like other viruses, it is possible that the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on surfaces or objects.”

Additionally, the CDC has said on their Coronavirus FAQ:

“Coronaviruses are generally thought to be spread from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food.  It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging that are shipped over a period of days or weeks at ambient, refrigerated, or frozen temperatures.”

In other words, there is every reason to think that the current recommended best practices for harvesting, washing and packing produce are sufficient.  However, it is vitally important that any workers showing signs of illness be removed from food processing as studies show that COVID-19 can survive on hard surfaces or objects for up to 72 hours.  This could include metal tables used in your post-harvest area and plastic bags or wax boxes that hold produce.  Cardboard such as those used for shipping fruit or other products can support COVID-19 for 24 hours.  The CDC has published an extensive explanation of how to clean surfaces and maintain good sanitation in the context of COVID-19.  You can find it here.

One easy disinfectant being recommended for general household sanitizing is 4 teaspoons of bleach in 1 quart of water, placed in a spray bottle for easy application on a variety of surfaces.  

Aren’t I killing COVID-19 in my wash water?

The CDC has published a list of disinfectants that kill COVID-19.  If the sanitizer you currently use is not mentioned on their list, Kali Feiereisel of CAFF’s Food Safety Program says in her excellent blog post, “It would be better for food safety if you kept using it [according to the label] than discontinue its use."

If you’re not currently using a sanitizer in your postharvest wash water, you can find one on the Produce Safety Alliance’s Resource Page. Certified Organic operations should review USDA’s list of Organic-approved sanitizers and detergents here.

For many, the use of bleach (sodium hypochlorite) is a go-to strategy in these times.  Read your labels, paying close attention to the concentration of NaOCl in your bleach.  Here are two essential resources for determining the right concentration for your use and calculating the ratios:

Am I (or my employees) potentially spreading COVID-19 just by handling product, loading trucks, etc.?

Good hygiene by you and your workers is essential.  As the CDC points out on their Coronavirus FAQ, “Before preparing or eating food it is important to always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds for general food safety. Throughout the day wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, or going to the bathroom.”  Disposable gloves and hand sanitizers are no substitute for frequent, thorough hand-washing.

You should also be washing down work surfaces frequently.  See the CDC’s guidance around cleaning and disinfecting here.

These activities should already be part of your standard operating procedures, and it is vital to remain vigilant with these practices.  You can find more specific guidance from Marin County Environmental Health here.

Employee Health & Wellbeing

Are my employees in any danger if they come to work at the farm/ranch?

Any employees who fit the CDC’s guidelines for “higher risk” should remain at home.  This includes people age 65 or older and those with an underlying medical condition such as lung disease, asthma, heart disease, diabetes, a weakened immune system, or any of the other illnesses mentioned here.

Similarly, anyone exhibiting signs of illness, especially symptoms associated with the common cold should remain at home and consult with their doctor.

For other employees, the CDC has published a lengthy list of practices to protect yourself and others.  Chief among them is to avoid close contact with others, maintaining a 6-foot distance from coworkers, cover coughs and sneezes, and wash hands frequently.  Marin County has created this poster you can use to explain the basics to your employees with a version in Spanish here.  Their FAQ on COVID-19 is also available in Spanish here.

Consider that your employees may be dealing with a variety of challenges.  Public transit has been dramatically affected, access to basic food and supplies may be limited due to hoarding behavior by some in the community.  Additionally, closure of schools and aftercare programs is making it hard for many to maintain their regular work schedule.  Use flexibility and judgement wherever possible.  The safety and well-being of your workers is closely connected to the safety of our community as a whole.

If you are struggling to communicate the details of COVID-19 to workers with limited English, check out Switchboard’s list of multilingual resources related to the coronavirus here

We typically work in teams, and there isn’t enough room to spread out in the pack house/processing plant/milk room.

This is a particular challenge for many food processors.  Some operations have taken to splitting shifts so fewer people are working at the same time, spreading the work over a longer stretch.  If some indoor activity can be moved outdoors where there is more room to spread out, consider that. 

Be conscious of equipment that is shared by multiple people and either purchase more to reduce sharing or institute practices to wash between uses.  Telephones, hand trucks, harvest knives, hand tools.  Also note fixtures that are handled repeatedly by your crew.  Assign a person to rotate through with sanitizing spray or equip each person to clean a surface prior to their own use.  Handles on lift gates, steering wheels on trucks, valves on tanks or knobs on doors that can’t be propped open for reasons of food safety or climate control.  All of these should get regular cleaning.  The EPA has an exhaustive list of approved disinfectants here.  A simple solution of bleach diluted in water and kept in a spray bottle should be easy to make and apply.  Always read labels carefully.

Remember, you are not only trying to prevent spread of the virus among your employees – you are preventing anyone from taking it home to their families.

Keep in mind that the use of N-95 masks should be reserved for infected persons and healthcare professionals.  The California Department of Public Health has released new guidance around cloth masks and makeshift barriers as potential aids in preventing the spread of coronavirus.  However, maintaining distance between people and establishing good sanitation practices are still the best method of keeping people safe.

Other important steps include:

  • Discourage employees from sharing cell phones, lunches or other personal items
  • Prepare for people to be absent. Cross train your crew and take a moment to make a plan – what will you do if one person has to stay home?  What if two?  How will you change daily flow and what parts of the operation can you slow or put aside until you are back up to speed?
  • Grant sick leave when workers show signs of illness or if they need to care for sick family members. If you don’t already have clear information on company policy, sit down with workers now to explain.  See the next item related to new sick leave laws.

What happens if an employee falls ill?

The CDC is continually updating its Guidelines for Businesses & Employers.  Most importantly, the guidelines state:

“Employers should not require a positive COVID-19 test result or a healthcare provider’s note for employees who are sick to validate their illness, qualify for sick leave, or to return to work. Healthcare provider offices and medical facilities may be extremely busy and not able to provide such documentation in a timely manner.”

The Family First Coronavirus Response Act mandates new, nationwide access to paid leave for family and medical emergencies during the pandemic.  This includes workers who must stay home due to school/daycare closures.  For employers with fewer than 500 employees, this new law lays out a combination of leave types and timings that vary according to the size of your workforce and employees’ reasons for staying home.  Most importantly, though, it will give tax credits as reimbursement for expenses related to sick leave.  And while small businesses of less than 50 employees can request a hardship exemption from the mandate, it’s important to consider the alternative: Employees who fear the loss of income may feel they have no choice but to go to work sick and hide it from their employers and supervisors.  This is a scenario that may ultimately shut down your entire workforce.

Four good places to read up on the new sick leave provisions are:

What if I have to lay off workers due to slowdowns in my business?

Under the recently passed coronavirus relief package (aka “CARES Act”), a new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program extends traditional unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks with an extra $600/week added to the amount already paid by the state.  This is on top of the direct cash payments of approximately $1200/person ($500/child) that are being sent to individuals and families. (NOTE: these direct payments are only available to people who have paid federal taxes at least once since 2018.)

Direct employees to the California Employment Development Department (EDD) for details on filing an unemployment claim.  Due to the nearly 200,000 claims filed in the last month, the EDD is advising people to file online at https://www.edd.ca.gov/Unemployment/UI_Online.htm .  California has also set up a job matching site to quickly put people back to work if they have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.  Check out https://onwardca.org/ .

NOTE: New disaster relief programs established in the recently-passed CARES Act provides forgivable loans for businesses that would cover the cost of wages and other expenses related to keeping workers on your payroll for 8 weeks.  This may be a way to maintain your workforce through the economic slowdown with the help of funds from the Small Business Administration (SBA).  Read "Is there any kind of emergency funding available?" below.

Marketing/Sales

My restaurant contracts have dried up.  What do I do now?

This is a quandary many farmers are facing.  Community Alliance With Family Farmers (CAFF) has put up a great page full of resources for finding new markets and adapting to new methods of sales/distribution in the era of COVID-19.

A number of other organizations are aggregating product from farms around the region and making them available for customer pickup.

  • FEED Sonoma's FEED Bin is assembling hundreds of boxes of produce for customers to pick up or have delivered.  If you already sell to FEED or if you conform to organic practices and need a place to sell product contact Tim Page at tim@feedsonoma.com for details.
  • Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM) is initiating a curbside pickup program for pre-ordered regional products as well as pre-assembled boxes of products that can be purchased at several of AIM's farmers markets.  To add your products to the program, contact Andy Naja-Riese at andy@agriculturalinstitute.org

Others are helping to promote your products to a wider audience:

  • CAFF has started an online list of farms with product to sell and buyers looking for items.  You can enter your products to the list and CAFF’s staff will help identify good matches.  You can access the list here.
  • If you are a member of Sonoma County Farm Trails, they will promote your products directly to thousands of consumers and publicize whatever delivery/pickup options you can arrange.   For details, contact the Farm Trails office at farmtrails@farmtrails.org
  • The Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) is also promoting Marin producers in their newletters and blog.  Contact Tristan Conway for details at tconway@malt.org.

Direct-marketing your product to consumers can take many forms.  Check CAFF’s page on sales/marketing.  Simplest approaches include promoting your products over platforms like Nextdoor and CropMobster.  Take payment via services like Paypal and drop off at individuals’ homes or set up an impromptu pick-up at your farm.  Simply ensure that you maintain a 6-foot distance from people and encourage your customers to do the same if their pickups overlap with others.

To think through online stores with integrated payment systems, review CAFF’s recent webinar on Marketing during COVIDOther webinars you may find helpful include:

Farm stands are deemed an essential business under the current Shelter in Place order, so if you have one already set up, you can continue to operate.  If you have a safe place on your property for people to park and visit a shaded table or other protected space, you might consider this.  Be conscious of impacts to traffic and pedestrian safety and check with neighbors to make sure they will not be negatively impacted.

For other ways to promote your products direct to consumers during this time, check out this quick video by Tim Young’s Small Farm Nation.  He outlines 3 ways you can connect with customers during the pandemic.  Additionally, online sales platform Barn 2 Door posted a blog with 3 ways to sell product under COVID-19, and Local Line (another sales platform) gives advice on setting up for direct-to-consumer sales here.

Farmers markets in Marin and Sonoma counties are seeing record attendance with many farms selling out.  Agricultural Community Events manages markets throughout the region, and they are accepting new vendors.  They are also publicizing availability of their farmers for advance purchase and curbside pickup.  Visit their website to sign up.

Financial Assistance

I don't have employees.  Is there any help for the self-employed?

Yes.  The new sick leave law provides funding to credit self-employed individuals in repayment for time away from work due to COVID-19 related sickness, the sickness of family members, or the need to care for children during school/daycare closures. 

As with the new access to sick leave, self-employed individuals are also able to claim unemployment for the first time ever.  Details are still being worked out, but the California Employment Development Department has a page dedicated to COVID-19 related benefits that they update regularly.

How do I keep up with all of my bills until the business is back on its feet?

California state Executive Order N-28-20 suspends evictions of residential or commercial leases where a failure to pay arises out of losses due to COVID-19.  It does not release anyone from the obligation to pay rent or prohibit a landlord from recovering rent due, but where a person or business has lost income as a result of infection or decreased demand for products, eviction is not an option.  This may provide some relief for farms struggling to pay for leased land or rented facilities.  It also provides protection for agricultural workers who find themselves unemployed or underemployed and unable to pay their rent.

Most major banks and even state-chartered smaller banks and credit unions in California have agreed to a 90-day moratorium on collecting mortgage payments from residential borrowers affected by the crisis and a 60-day moratorium on new foreclosures.  Home owners whose mortgage is insured by the Federal Housing Administration will be protected from any foreclosure action until the end of May, and mortgage payments to lenders backed by Fanny Mae or Freddie Mac can also be suspended for 12 months due to coronavirus-related hardship. Check with your own lender for details.  If you have borrowed money through one of the USDA’s Direct Loan programs, you can get relief or even a moratorium on payments.  See their announcement here.

PG&E has also initiated flexible payment plans and suspended service-disconnects for residential and small business customers who cannot pay their bills due to impact by COVID-19.  Details here.

Deadlines for state and federal tax filings have been delayed until July 15th.

Effective April 2, 2020, small business taxpayers, those with less than $5 million in taxable annual sales, can take advantage of a 12-month, interest-free, payment plan for up to $50,000 of sales and use tax liability.  Payment plan requests can be made in the coming months through the online services page of the Department of Tax & Fees Administration.

Is there any kind of emergency funding available to help farms and ranches?

The California State Treasurer has put together a growing document here, listing potential sources of relief funding from federal, state and local entities.  The Sonoma County Economic Development Board has assembled a page for small businesses that lists not only funding sources but also resources for your employees to get relief – including Disability Insurance for those who are quarantined and Paid Family Leave for those that may be caring for infected family members.

The recently passed federal coronavirus assistance program (“CARES Act”) created a $350 billion fund for small businesses (under 500 employees) which includes two main forms of assistance:

  • Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL). These are the low-interest loans traditionally provided by the Small Business Administration (SBA) in times of crisis to cover operating expenses and other expenses related to loss of business during the COVID crisis:
    • 75% interest with no payments for 12 months.
    • Loan amounts based on estimated “injury” to the business, up to $2million per applicant
    • Applicants can also request a loan advance of up to $10,000 which would be available much sooner and would not have to be repaid
    • NOTE: The SBA is in the process of establishing whether or not farms are eligible for EIDL’s
  • Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). Also called “7(a) SBA loans”, these loans will be administered by private lenders to pay for a specific set of expenses, some of which would be entirely forgivable.
    • All funds used for the following expenses do not have to be repaid:
      • 8 weeks of payroll
      • 8 weeks of mortgage interest
      • 8 weeks of rent
      • 8 weeks of utilities
    • Up to $10million per applicant, based on 2.5 times your monthly payroll.
    • Maximum interest rate of 4% (presumably on funds not eligible for forgiveness) with deferments on payments of 6 months
    • If you have already laid off employees, you can still have PPP funds forgiven if you rehire them before June 30, 2020.

These two programs are fully explained at Marin Small Business Development Center’s website here

You can get full information about these loans, the $10k advance and all application-related information at the Small Business Administration (SBA) website here:

https://www.sba.gov/page/coronavirus-covid-19-small-business-guidance-loan-resources

At this time, we are recommending that farms take 3 steps:

  1. Apply with your local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for assistance with this process. Go here to sign up: https://nc.ecenterdirect.com/signup
  2. Talk to your bank or current lender to see if they will be participating in the PPP. Participating lenders will start taking applications on April 3rd
  3. Start gathering documents for both the PPP and EIDL loans. These funds are limited and it is unclear how long it will take to receive funds.  Better to start now – you can always decline funds if you determine you don’t need them.  Application info here:

The Food & Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) is giving farms mini-grants of $500 to help facilitate new sales channels during this crisis.  This could help pay for an online sales portal, supplies for shipping/delivery of products, etc.  Details and application here.

Hello Alice (in partnership with Verizon) offers $10,000 emergency grants along with other assistance for small businesses trying to weather the storm: https://www.covid19businesscenter.com/

American Farmland Trust has released a new Farmer Relief Fund that would provide small farms with $1000.  Get details and an application here: https://farmland.org/farmer-relief-fund/