An outbreak of new COVID-19 cases hit both of Apple King’s packinghouses this summer.

According to Yakima Health District records, the fruit packer in Gleed had 20 cases in early August.

The plants were able to continue operating but shifted workers back and forth to limit exposure.

Since the summer — when new cases in Yakima County peaked — things have calmed down considerably, with fruit packinghouses in the Yakima Valley seeing just a handful of cases in recent months.

“Overall, it’s been where it hasn’t affected our packing line at all,” said principal Mike Saunders.

But Saunders said it’s no time to let up on precautions. With the weather cooling down, the company recently converted one of its meeting spaces into a lunchroom. The lunchroom, which models a design from Washington Fruit, features tables with plastic dividers.

“We’ve had to go the extra mile to make sure everyone is safe,” Saunders said.

The extra mile often means additional cost, something agricultural producers and packers haven’t made up in revenues.

According to an October report from the Northwest Horticultural Council, tree fruit growers and packers have spent thousands of dollars, even tens of thousands, to follow various federal and state safety guidelines. This Yakima-based organization follows public policy issues for the region’s tree fruit industry.

The report highlighted costs for various growers and packers. For instance, one packer spent $167 per employee for personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. One grower reported spending $1,920 to $2,240 per week for employees dedicated to cleaning.

Total costs for packers to implement safety measures, from installing plastic barriers to placing social distancing markers, ranged from $20,000 to $860,000.

The higher figure includes a company that installed $640,000 for a new packing line because it could not meet distancing requirements with its previous line.

“This was a case you either do it or you close the doors,” said Mark Powers, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council.

Workplace spread tamped down

For the most part, the investments seem to have helped decrease new food and agricultural cases overall. In recent months, most local agricultural cases have been from H2-A workers likely infected in the community and bringing it back to farmworker housing.

“Adequate supplies of masks and other PPE, combined with clear guidance that is being followed, has allowed employers to successfully limit spread within the workplace,” said Jon DeVaney, executive director of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association, a Yakima-based trade association.

The overwhelming majority of new COVID-19 cases in Yakima County are coming from social visits, family gatherings and parties in Yakima County, health officials said last week. Just 7.4% of cases in Yakima County are from workplaces, long-term care facilities and other congregate settings.

But with the potential of another wave of new cases ahead, there’s a new focus on ensuring the agricultural industry has enough supplies.

As long as there aren’t massive changes in policies, the industry should be better prepared to respond next year, DeVaney said.

“The state and federal rules and guidelines now in place are expected to remain in place into 2021,” DeVaney said. “So while communication with public health officials to address any new issues will remain important, we won’t have the same challenge to quickly adapt as we did this past season.”

There has been a massive effort, one encouraged by public health officials, to reinforce the importance of following safety measures, such as masks and physical distancing, outside the workplace.

“While growers and packers continue to follow the rules that remain in place, they are concerned about caseloads rising among their employees based on what happens the other two-thirds of the day when they’re not at work,” DeVaney said.

Kevin Riel, a Harrah hop grower, said he feels workers are starting to understand the importance of staying safe outside the workplace.

That messaging will be crucial in the months to come.

“Even if you’re perfectly safe at work, if you go home and you go to a gathering on the weekend, you kind of negated everything you did positively for the five or six days at work,” Riel said.

Overall industry challenges

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, things were already challenging for the agricultural industry. Apple prices, driven by a large crop a year ago, were low, affecting the returns growers could receive at the end of the 2019-20 season.

The COVID-19 pandemic created additional market challenges for agricultural producers. Some saw much of their food service and restaurant business disappear, said Riel, who is also a director for CoBank, a Northwest agricultural lender.

Growers already had to secure federal aid in response to adverse effects from ongoing trade disputes from countries such as China and India. The trade situation was starting to improve when the pandemic hit, Riel said.

“COVID-19 threw a wrench,” he said.

Agricultural producers and tree fruit growers struggled to achieve the cash flow needed to get through the season and cover the increased costs of protective equipment and other safety measures for workers.

“The debt load has been significant,” Powers said. “COVID-19 is magnifying some of the problems we’ve seen in the industry.”

New safety measures and worker illness also have decreased efficiency. The Northwest Horticultural Council said one packer reported 35% to 45% less fruit going through a packing line due to labor shortages from worker absences and difficulties filling open positions.

The Horticultural Council said the U.S. apple industry has reported $174 million in losses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pear growers suffered a loss of about $6 million.

Aid available

Yakima Valley agricultural producers had to lean on federal aid to get through the first several months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some received forgivable loans from the Paycheck Protection Program. Growers received direct payments through the federal Coronavirus Food Assistance Program or sold fruit through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which provided food to people in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, milk producers in Washington state received $49.52 million in direct payments through the CFAP program. Apple growers received the next highest amount at $36.39 million. Pear growers in Washington state received $6.64 million.

“Fruit growers are facing incredible financial pressures right now,” Powers said. “This money, without a doubt, kept some of them in business.”

Apple King received funds both through PPP and the CFAP program. Saunders said he’s also worked with growers that have apples packed at Apple King to apply for PPP and other aid.

“These programs have really helped revitalize the industry,” he said. “Our growing side has not made any money. This (has helped) us get on our feet again.”

A second version of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program was launched in late September. Unlike the first version, all growers will qualify for the program, recognizing widespread adverse impact from the pandemic, Powers said.

Those additional funds will be crucial as the pandemic continues. And growers have had to deal with other issues like storms and wildfires that reduced the size of the 2020 apple crop, which could further reduce revenues.

“How do we get money out to people to stay in business?” Powers asked.

Riel said he expects the COVID-19 pandemic to accelerate the consolidation of the agriculture industry. Agricultural producers and packers have either merged or developed vertically integrated operations to grow larger. Another option is to go niche, such as a family farm that sells directly to consumers.

Riel exited the apple business last year because of the mounting challenges for a grower-only operation, and shifted his focus to hops.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the vast, vertically integrated operations — companies with both an orchard and a packing operation — that are best able to respond. For example, a larger company can buy many masks in bulk for a lower per-item price.

“There are a plethora of changes (needed) to keep people safe,” Riel said. “It’s easier for large operations to respond to that.”

Small family farm operations also have done well, Riel said. A small farm can communicate directly to customers and provide assurances of safety.

“I think COVID-19 handed a little win to those folks,” he said.

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang