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Coronavirus forces vegetable farms to adapt to additional risks

WELLTON, AZ — While the coronavirus has upended much of the American economy, farmworkers in Arizona are still out in the fields harvesting vegetables as usual for supermarkets across the country.

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.

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