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Health and Medicine

Ag Workers Prepare For Harvest Season Amid Pandemic

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April Ehrlich/JPR News
National Guardsmen load Sean Steeve's truck with face masks and hand sanitizer for his workers at RDSP Farms, an industrial hemp farm based in Ashland.

Oregon state agencies this week provided thousands of masks and bottles of hand sanitizer to agricultural workers across the state.

Health officials are concerned that the coronavirus could spread easily among seasonal farmworkers, who often travel from other countries and sleep in crowded quarters.

Oregon has already had a number of outbreaks at food production facilities, including a large cannery in Multnomah County.

The Oregon National Guard helped distribute the protective equipment at different sites in each county, including Oregon State University’s Southern Oregon Research & Extension Center in Central Point.

SOREC Director Richard Roseburg says a long line of ag workers waiting in their trucks had formed 30 minutes before opening.

“We had a line up around the building, almost out to the road,” he says. “They wanted to come first thing. Maybe they weren’t sure how many we had available.”

By late morning, the back of a large National Guard military vehicle was still half-full of boxes containing thousands of masks.

Many of the agricultural workers who came to claim them work in the hemp industry, including Sean Steeves, a manager at RDSP Farms of Ashland. He says many of his production workers are already well acquainted with personal protective equipment.

“The cannabis industry has been wearing masks and gloves for years because the terpenes can be pretty strong coming off the hemp, so we’re pretty used to it,” he says.

He adds that it will take field workers some time to get used to wearing face masks while harvesting in the summer heat.