In a field near the town of Wellton last week, a crew of workers stooped down and cut heads of iceberg lettuce, following a machine that rolled loaded boxes on a conveyor belt to a trailer. The men and women worked side-by-side in groups of two, stripping off excess leaves, wrapping each head of lettuce in plastic and packing box after box.
The farms around Yuma produce much of the country’s lettuce and other leafy vegetables from winter until early April, and the harvest system has long involved crews of Mexican and Central American workers laboring shoulder-to-shoulder.
Growers say they’re telling employees to abide by federal guidelines and keep safe distances from each other to limit the spread of coronavirus. They say managers of vegetable-packing businesses are working out how to change procedures in the fields so that workers can stay farther apart — a considerable challenge for an industry that typically relies on teams harvesting crops together in close quarters.
“Cutting this lettuce, wrapping it and putting it in a box, it’s hard work and it’s hard to spread everybody out and do it keeping a 6- or 10-foot distance,” said grower John Boelts. “We’ve got some challenges to implement distancing with equipment and everything the way it is. People are going to figure it out and make it work, and we’ll keep the food supply running while being cognizant of worker safety.”
Together with his wife, Alicia, and business partners, Boelts owns the company Desert Premium Farms and manages about 2,500 acres of farmland. He has about 40 employees and relies on crews hired by packing companies to harvest lettuce.
He stood watching while the workers, wearing gloves and using knives, advanced along the green rows cutting heads of lettuce.
Boelts said these Mexican guest workers are in the country temporarily on H-2A visas. He acknowledged that, unlike some other crews, this one hadn’t yet shifted to keeping 6 feet between workers.
“Over the next couple of weeks, everyone is working on implementing that,” Boelts said. “We’re all trying to figure this out.”
The workers were in their final few days finishing the lettuce harvest in Yuma. Next, they’ll hit the road to cut lettuce in Salinas, Calif.
Boelts said he expects the harvest crews will continue shifting to more physical distancing as they move on. The changes will need to involve not only ensuring safe distances during field work, he said, but also having workers more spread out in their housing and on buses.
“We’re making changes on the fly,” Boelts said. “We’re not going to shut down. We’re going to have to find ways to make this work for the health and safety of all the employees.”
The coronavirus pandemic is bringing major challenges for the U.S. agriculture industry. While grappling with how to keep workers safe, farm managers are also worried that efforts to curb the spread of the virus could worsen a longstanding shortage of agricultural laborers.
The U.S. government has scaled back operations at consulates in Mexico and has halted processing of new applications for farmworkers to come to the country temporarily through the H-2A program.
“We’re already handicapped in our ability to have enough workers in this country. We’re importing too much food into this country. And then you throw a pandemic that impacts the domestic and guest worker population,” Boelts said. “Over time, this is going to have a creep effect. And we’re worried about the long term of what it means.”
Boelts is vice president of the Arizona Farm Bureau. He and other growers have long called for reforms to help ensure more laborers for the agriculture.
Through the H-2A program, nearly 8,000 workers came to do farm labor in the Yuma area this year, Boelts said. The program has functioned as a stopgap, he said, but it’s now in peril.
And while the vegetable harvest is winding down, farms will be looking for workers again in May to harvest cantaloupes and other melons.
“My biggest worry for midsummer is that we won’t have the hands to harvest product,” Boelts said. “We haven’t seen any impacts yet. But no doubt we will. It’s just a matter of time.”
Yuma County has 15 confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far. But none of the cases have been reported among farmworkers.
Eleazar Silva, the supervisor of the harvest crew, said he’s been telling workers to keep their distance and wash their hands.
“Everybody’s scared,” Silva said. “We try to be safe.”
Many farmworkers live south of the border in San Luis or Mexicali, and they cross over to work in the fields of Yuma and California’s neighboring Imperial Valley.
In both areas, Colorado River water flows through canals to fields that produce most of the country’s winter vegetables, plus other crops including alfalfa and cotton.
The farms near Yuma grow lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, cilantro, parsley, radicchio, fennel, beets, bok choy, endives, spinach, and other crops.
In the Wellton area, manicured rows sprout vegetables in colors from emerald green to deep purple.
During the past several weeks, growers have seen large fluctuations in lettuce prices, which have fallen as many restaurants have closed.
“Demand for fresh produce, the leafy green produce, has really kind of dropped off,” said Steve Alameda, a grower who runs the company Top Flavor Farms. “We have no idea how long that’s going to last, but we’re anticipating that could be at least two months long.”
Alameda said his workers were able to come across the border as usual and wrapped up the winter harvest without facing problems due to the virus.
As for the coming months, he said, there are many unanswered questions.
“We’re all kind of in limbo here,” he said, “trying to protect our people and advise them the best we can how to protect themselves from this thing, but still trying to get our work done. It’s a challenge.”
Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.