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COVID-19 restrictions fast-track a new way of doing business

• By Carroll Smith,
Editor •

charles patton

Charles Patton has worked with Arkansas producer Nathan Reed’s family for 50 years. Reed is taking steps on his farm to help protect all of his employees from potentially being infected with COVID-19 — photo courtesy Nathan Reed

In the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, farmers get up every day and head to the fields to plant their crops. They don’t have the luxury of waiting for the crisis to pass. Farming, along with the companies that support the profession, is deemed an essential business that provides quality food and fiber for the world.

Even though agriculture takes place in a relatively isolated environment, growers and agricultural enterprises are implementing measures to protect their health and still conduct business.

A Farmer’s Perspective

Nathan Reed, who grows cotton in Lee County, Arkansas, says he is taking steps to keep his workers safe as they go about their daily tasks.

“Fortunately, I have several farm trucks so my employees can ride alone in different vehicles,” he says. “I also am trying to limit them from working together in a confined space. I divide my workers between a couple of different shops so they can spread out and stay separated. We decontaminate all of the tractor cabs and communicate with cell phones on a daily basis.

“The farm businesses we deal with are also taking precautions. For example, the parts and supply stores are allowing just a couple of people in the store at one time. If we need parts, we call in the order. Then the store has everything set out and ready to go for whoever comes to pick it up.”

In addition to running his farming operation, Reed is involved in other agricultural organizations. Members typically gather in person to discuss policy and industry issues. When COVID-19 restrictions went into place, they had to adopt different ways of meeting.

“This spring, the American Cotton Producers meeting was scheduled to be held in Dallas,” Reed says. “Because of travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines, we all met on a Zoom video conference call instead. The technology allowed us to accomplish our goals, but we did miss the impromptu hallway and dinner conversations, which are always a highlight of these types of meetings.

“I’ve also missed having lunch two or three times a week at the local café with a group of farmers. We don’t get the social interaction we used to. To put it in perspective, my interaction with a group of farmers recently consisted of a conference call we had with U.S. Congressman Rick Crawford R, Ark. It’s definitely been a change of pace.”

Reed says he and his wife, Kristin, are experiencing some adjustments on the home front as well.

“Kristin does all the paperwork, keeps the books and handles payroll for the farm,” he says. “It’s been challenging for her to keep up with all of that in addition to home schooling our four kids, ages 8, 8, 6 and 4. Luckily, we live out in the country, so they can ride bikes and four-wheelers and play in the mud. We encourage them to get some outdoor time and stay off the ‘screens’ — TV, video games and iPads.

“We miss not being able to go to church, especially on Easter. By nature, living in a rural environment can be isolating, and then something like COVID-19 comes along on top of it. Luckily, my wife and I get along, and we have enough kids to keep us entertained.

“From a greater perspective, a lot of businesses are shut down and having their reckoning right now. We are still farming, but if commodity prices don’t rise, agriculture will have its reckoning in the fall.”

Companies Respond To Pandemic

chad facetiming

Chad Brewer FaceTimes with one of his farmers to discuss a problem spot in a field and make a recommendation — photo courtesy Chad Brewer

Chad Brewer, a PhytoGen cotton development specialist who works in Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel, says Corteva Agriscience has had to adapt to the COVID-19 restrictions as a company. While a small staff is onsite at the company headquarters, the company is still open and operating.

“Our goals are the same,” Brewer says. “We want to help our customers mitigate risk and maximize their return on investment and keep the agriculture industry moving forward providing food and fiber. Agriculture isn’t an industry that can stop and then start back up three months later right where we left off. It’s a seasonal business. If we miss the planting window, we miss the crop.

“For those of us who work full-time in the field, Corteva recommended guidelines for us to follow. We call ahead to make sure we are welcome to come out to someone’s farm or shop at a particular time. When we get there, we don’t go into their offices or shake hands. We usually stay outside or meet in a large equipment shed or shop where there is plenty of room between us.

“Even then, we spend a limited amount of time with the farmer. We exchange a few niceties, conduct our business and leave as quickly as we can. For example, the other day I dropped off some seed at a farmer’s shop. We said ‘Hi’ to each other; he jumped on a forklift to unload the truck; and I was gone in a matter of five minutes.”

Brewer says he will still be planting on-farm plots this year because it’s a critical piece of research for PhytoGen and for growers going into 2021.

“If this plot work involves me and a co-worker, we arrive in separate trucks and limit the number of our people who can be present at one time,” he says. “And we don’t ride in the tractor together while the plot is being planted. We are doing everything we can to limit physical person-to-person interaction.”

To help fill the gap created by these restrictions, Brewer uses FaceTime or other video chat software to communicate with farmers.

“If a grower has a question about a particular spot in a field, he can drop me a pin to give me an idea of where it is,” Brewer says. “I go look at it, shoot a video and maybe FaceTime with him from my truck and make a recommendation. This limits our face-to-face interaction and frees up time for our customers and for us.

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“We’ve also used Zoom to conduct online training for Enlist herbicide. In the past, we held a meeting in a grower’s shop and invited people from the surrounding community. COVID-19 crowd capacity restrictions and social distancing prohibit this scenario, so we turned to video-conferencing technology instead. And, as a company, we are planning virtual field days as a way to share information with a large audience.”

Brewer says text messages and phone calls between company reps and farmers are typical ways to communicate and will continue to be used in the future. He also has a YouTube channel — Chad Brewer — where he routinely posts videos from the field and shares the link so folks can be aware of what is happening without actually being there.

“We are learning a lot about the electronic tools we have today and will probably continue to use them as we move forward,” he says. “But agriculture is still an industry based on personal interaction relationships. We all love being on the farm talking to our growers, riding together in a pickup or tractor cab and sharing meals as a group.

“But right now, we all have to take personal responsibility to do business in a manner that protects everyone until it is safe to get together the way we used to.”