Small Farms, Local Food, and COVID-19

What do you need to know?

Index:
  • How is COVID-19 spread?
  • Am I likely to spread COVID-19 with the food I am selling?
  • What hygiene and food safety practices will help me prevent COVID-19 infection?
  • What should I be communicating to employees?
  • What should I be communicating to customers to inform as well as retain them?
  • What resources are available for the changes I might need to make to my business?
  • What online sales systems work for farms?
  • Where can I go for financial assistance due to COVID-19 business hardship?
  • Where can I find reliable information about the spread of COVID-19?
Introduction

Access to credible information is important during any public health crisis. Faculty in the OSU Center for Small Farms and Community Food systems are working with community partners to provide current information that is relevant for small farms and local food systems. As the pandemic progresses, we may update or add to these Frequently Asked Questions.

How is COVID-19 spread?

COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly through person to person contact. The virus spreads in droplets or aerosols (fine spray) and can infect a new person through the eyes, nose and mouth.  Airborne is a potential vector and the virus may be stable for hours and days on surfaces. Recent research shows that infected people with little to no symptoms may spread the virus.

Scientists with the National Institute of Health, CDC, UCLA and Princeton found that the virus was detectable in aerosols for up to three hours, up to four hours on copper, up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. The results provide key information about the stability of the virus, and suggests that people may acquire the virus through the air and after touching contaminated objects. Current guidelines are to maintain at least six feet between people to avoid contact with infected droplets.

Since this outbreak is during cold, flu and allergy season, it is helpful to differentiate symptoms of COVID-19 from other common illnesses. WebMD reports that “COVID-19 is a lower respiratory tract infection, which means that most of the symptoms are felt in the chest and lungs. That’s different from colds that bring on an upper respiratory tract infection, where you get a runny nose and sinus congestion. Those symptoms seem to be mostly absent for people with COVID-19, though they’re not unheard of.” According to Healthline, “the main symptoms of the novel coronavirus are fever, tiredness, dry cough, and shortness of breath.”

Am I likely to spread COVID-19 with the food I am selling?

COVID-19 is not considered a foodborne illness. It is always important to ensure that sick employees stay home from work, and that all employees practice good hygiene. The FDA, CDC, USDA, California Department of Public Health and European Food Safety Authority all report that there is no evidence that COVID-19 is spread through food. 

Consumer Safety Report https://www.consumerreports.org/food-safety/coronavirus-common-questions-about-the-food-you-eat-food-safety/  

FDA: Food safety and the coronavirus disease: https://www.fda.gov/food/food-safety-during-emergencies/food-safety-and-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19

USDA Coronavirus information: https://www.usda.gov/coronavirus

California Department of Public Health: https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/CDPH%20Document%20Library/COVID-19/Coronavirus%20Disease%202019%20and%20Food%20Industry.pdf

European Food Safety Authority: https://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/news/coronavirus-no-evidence-food-source-or-transmission-route

What hygiene and food safety practices will help me prevent COVID-19 infection? 

Sanitizers don’t work on dirty hands or food contact surfaces: clean, rinse and then sanitize.

Farms should make handwashing stations and/or hand sanitizer available to all employees and customers. Employees should wash their hands whenever they may have become contaminated, such as after touching contaminated surfaces or touching their face. Hand washing and social distancing are some of the most important practices we can implement to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Disposable gloves may be helpful in some circumstances, but only if they are used correctly.

Wash hands before and after putting on gloves, and change them if you touch a potentially contaminated surface. Detailed instructions for using gloves are provided in the link below.

Surface sanitizers are also an important tool for reducing the risk of spread. Disinfect food contact surfaces on a regular basis, including: reusable bins and buckets, railings, doorknobs, tables, etc. Identify shared equipment and other contact points, make a list and add to the cleaning regime. The World Health Organization has published instructions for small-scale production of hand sanitizers (see resources).

CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. The virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms. Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure. The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators, these are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.

At markets sampling is suspended to minimize touch points. Add a hand washing station. Vendors should practice good hand hygiene; use disposable gloves when handling money, when possible designate separate people for handling money/cards and handling products, and handle and package items for customers. If money is handled, hands should be washed or hand sanitizer should be used afterward.  Consider pre-packaging food before going to the market to limit customer contact with the food. Each market vendor in Oregon must have a social distancing officer that enforces 6 foot spacing between people in the booth. 

Focus on hand-washing, social distancing, and surface sanitization.

What should I be communicating to employees?

Talk with your employees about Coronavirus, how it spreads, and how to prevent getting infected. You should review your sick leave policy with all employees. The first advice for people who are sick is to stay home. Anyone that has a fever, cough, and shortness of breath should call a medical provider before visiting a care facility.

Do you provide paid sick leave for your employees? If you do not, will employees feel financially obligated to come to work even if they are sick? Employees sometimes come to work believing they will face punishment or firing if they miss work. Be sure your employees understand that their health and that of their co-workers comes first. Communicate and make a plan to cover for sick employees. See Fact Sheets in link below, provided in both English and Spanish.

Provide guidance to help employees clean and disinfect employer-provided housing. Follow up with employees and manage the process to be sure that this happens. Set up a regular weekly and daily schedule for cleaning.

For Organic operations:

What should I be communicating to customers to inform as well as retain them?

“FDA is not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices (i.e., wash hands and surfaces often, separate raw meat from other foods, cook to the right temperature, and refrigerate foods promptly) when handling or preparing foods.”  https://www.cdph.ca.gov/Programs/CID/DCDC/CDPH%20Document%20Library/COVID-19/Coronavirus%20Disease%202019%20and%20Food%20Industry.pdf   

Emphasize that protecting public health is paramount to your business and share your food safety protocols to prevent the spread of infection. Currently there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food. You can communicate to employees and customers that before preparing or eating food it is important to always wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds for general food safety.

Now is the time to benefit from our vibrant local food system! CSA, farmers markets, online ordering, etc. are all ways to reduce the number of hands touching your food.  Fresh vegetables and unprocessed food help to promote good immune system function.  For customers who feel the need to stock up on food products, encourage them to do so through their local farms. Emphasize items that store well and prepare meals with fresh produce that can be frozen. Reinforce the health benefits of fruits and vegetables.

Share the positives through your list servs and on social media!  During this stressful time, our local food system is already set up to offer increased food safety to eaters.  CSA models allow eaters to avoid crowds and grocery stores, and online and delivery systems are quickly ramping up to get local food to local eaters in the safest possible way.  

What resources are available for the changes I might need to make to my business?

Your customers need access to food in order to stay healthy, and well managed local farms and food systems can be consistent with social distancing efforts that are critical during this pandemic.

  • Wholesale markets: stay in touch with your buyer so that you know how they are responding to the outbreak. 
  • Direct to retail: Explore online sale platforms, see question below regarding options. If you sell meat, here is a presentation on farm to freezer for online meat sales presented by The Niche Meat Processor Assistance Network: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSb7sgm-M6k&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR1yNihNReL1khM8tcaPNVZJkB4w2QgsSjE2bmcXxYvtLtVkFf7ut3gImYA 
  • Community Supported Agriculture: if pick up locations are sanitized and customers practice social distancing, CSA’s may reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Considering starting a CSA or expanding one? Here is a great new resource! Interactive flow chart and all the resources you need to incorporate a CSA into your operation. This is a project between the Portland Area CSA Coalition (PACSAC) and OSU Small Farms. http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/csainfo/ 
  • Farmers markets: Stay in regular communication with your farmers market manager as well as the Oregon Farmer’s Market Association as they develop strategies and communicate with vendors and customers. As things are rapidly changing, you may want to connect with their email list to receive regular updates.  https://www.oregonfarmersmarkets.org/.  The Farmers Market Coalition has started a dedicated page of resources: https://farmersmarketcoalition.org/farmers-markets-covid19/
  • This guide from Purdue University can help you navigate these uncertain times by offering ideas on:
    • Changing your business model
    • Meeting the needs of the market
    • Reaching your customer base without increasing potential exposure to COVID-19
    • Continuing to generate income during this difficult period

https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/a-guide-for-local-producers-to-navigate-the-covid-19-outbreak.html

What online sales systems work for farms?

The National Young Farmers Coalition has put together a guide for farmers with information on direct sales software platforms, direct sales models, and software platform details. Farmer's Guide to Direct Sales Software Platforms: https://www.youngfarmers.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Farmers-Guide-to-Direct-Sales-Software-Platforms.pdf

Here are a few online sales platforms to check out, this is not a comprehensive list, nor are we endorsing any of these. Oregon Tilth webinar https://tilth.org/education/resources/online-sales-platforms-for-farmers/ provides an overview of options and key questions for farmers to consider when looking at direct-to-consumer online sales: We recommend reaching out to your farmer networks to get recommendations on platforms currently used:

Here are a few pointers on marketing during the COVID-19 pandemic from businesses that offer online sales platform:

Here are some questions to ask when you’re choosing which service to work with:
  • How long has your online sales platform been in use?
  • How many farmers are you currently working with?
  • What will it cost my farm to use your platform? What is your fee structure?
  • I’m ready to start selling products right now. What does it take to get started? Is there a wait because of the current increase in demand for online sales platform services?
  • How will your online sales platform integrate with my current website?
  • What is the process for entering the products that I have to sell?
  • How do I update my product list and pricing?
  • Will I be able to set inventory limits so that I don’t oversell products?
  • How does the customer interface work? Is your platform easy to use on a Smartphone?
  • How do customers pay for products?
    • Are credit and debit card fees charged to customers?
    • Can customers pay by check or cash on delivery?
    • Can customers pay with EBT?
    • Is there a way for me offer customers discounts, coupons, and promotions?
  • How long does it take for customer payments to deposit into my farm’s bank account?
  • How is sales tax handled on your platform?
  • Is it possible to integrate your platform with my accounting software?
  • Is it possible to create pack lists directly from your sales platform? How about labels?
  • Does your platform offer any suggestions for delivery routes based on orders?
  • What kind of IT support does your company provide?
  • How is my farm’s sales data used and/or shared?
  • What happens to my farm’s sales data if I stop using your platform?
  • What other features does your platform offer that I should know about?
Where can I go for financial assistance due to COVID-19 business hardship?
Where can I find reliable information about the spread of COVID-19?

The State of Oregon, Oregon Health Authority and national Center for Disease Control are all providing information and policies to help manage the pandemic. Restrictions to reduce the spread of the virus can come from Federal, State and local government, so stay up to date on policies in your area. On March 23 Oregon’s governor issued an Executive Order 20-12 Stay directing Oregonians to stay home to the maximum extent possible.

About Executive Order 20-12:

  • All non-essential social and recreational gatherings of individuals are prohibited immediately, regardless of size, if a distance of at least six feet between individuals cannot be maintained. Gatherings of members of the same residential household are permitted.
  • It closes and prohibits shopping at specific categories of retail businesses, for which close personal contact is difficult to avoid, such as arcades, barber shops, hair salons, gyms and fitness studios, skating rinks, theaters, and yoga studios.
  • It requires businesses not closed by the order to implement social distancing policies in order to remain open, and requires workplaces to implement teleworking and work-at-home options when possible.
  • It directs Oregonians to stay home whenever possible, while permitting activities outside the home when social distance is maintained.
  • It closes playgrounds, sports courts, and skate parks, among other types of outdoor recreation facilities. Those that remain open are required to strictly adhere to social distancing guidelines.
  • It outlines new guidelines for child care facilities, setting limits and rules on amounts of children allowed in care, and outlining that child care groups may not change participants.
  • Failure to comply with the order will be considered an immediate danger to public health and subject to a Class C misdemeanor.

Retail businesses closed by Executive Order 20-12 include:

  • Shopping: Outdoor and indoor malls and retail complexes, although individual types of businesses not subject to the measures may stay open.
  • Fitness: Gyms, sports and fitness centers, health clubs, and exercise studios
  • Grooming: Barbershops, beauty and nail salons, and non-medical wellness spas
  • Entertainment: Theaters, amusement parks, arcades, bowling

OSU Extension is following the public health guidance of our local county health departments, the Oregon Health Authority, and the national Center for Disease Control (CDC).