Hood River Valley growers work through new rules

By Drew Myron

Arturo Martinez on a ladder by a tree, wearing a mask.
Arturo Martinez, foreman at Bickford Orchards, manages a crew of 25 workers who tend 160 acres of pears, apples, and grapes. All workers now wear masks and practice other health precautions. Photo by Drew Myron.

Maija Yasui is searching for toilets.

At the peak of harvest, her family farm employs 140 workers, and she is working hard to keep them safe.

“We need more port-a-potties,” she says, calculating the sweeping changes a pandemic brings. “They must be no more than one-quarter mile apart or 1,200 feet, and that’s 400 steps. We’ll need 16. We’ll have a physical distancing monitor, a handwashing monitor, and a bathroom cleaner. That’ll be me. I’m going to be running around with bleach.”

Maija is not alone. From fines to guidelines to health concerns, Hood River Valley farmers are busy working out the ramifications of the COVID-19 crisis.

In response to the coronavirus, in late April Oregon’s Occupational Safety & Health Division handed down emergency rules for agriculture workers. Designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the rules center on three areas of concern: field sanitation, labor housing, and transportation. With just days to comply, local farmers quickly reworked operations to meet the new demands.

The rules will reduce the ability of many growers to fill labor housing at approved levels due to space and bunk bed limitations, says Mike Doke, executive director of Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers. The organization is working with the governor’s office and the Oregon Department of Agriculture to find ways to offset OSHA’s temporary restrictions.

By the time this story is in print, cherry harvest will be in full swing. Workers will have made the transit from Washington to California to Oregon, arriving for harvest in June for The Dalles, and July for the Hood River Valley. In August, pears will be ready for picking, followed by apples and grapes.

Though many areas of farming have transitioned from manual to mechanized, cherry harvest is still a hands-on task— and a massive endeavor. As a result, labor housing is a pressing issue in the Columbia River Gorge.

The local harvest is fortified with the labor of more than 6,000 workers in Hood River and The Dalles. Oregon has 309 registered labor camps, according to Columbia Gorge Fruit Growers. Of these, nearly 40% are in Hood River County and about 27% are in Wasco County—nearly two-thirds of the state’s registered labor housing.

The new rules are a challenge. Typical worker housing is dorm-style, but now bunk beds are only allowed for those who are related, and each must be 6 feet apart. This changes the number of people who can occupy labor housing.

“Many growers now have substantially less housing than they anticipated because of this rule,” Mike says. “As a result, much of the crop may go unharvested— a substantial blow to a pear industry that’s already struggling with increased production costs. With new OSHA temporary rule space restrictions, a local grower previously certified for 75 occupants has seen their housing reduced to 37 workers.”

That is a loss of more than 50% of the workforce unless alternatives can be developed.

Lisa Perry standing next to a full box of pears.
“There are challenges at every turn,” says Lisa Perry, of Cody Orchards. She and her husband, Ricardo Galvez, operate a 14-acre farm west of Odell where they grow peaches, pears, nectarines, and more. Photo courtesy of Lisa Perry.

“Because all growers will add labor as harvest approaches, it won’t take long for any alternatives to be exhausted,” Mike says. “A reduction in labor translates in a reduction of harvested crops and fewer paychecks.”

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture earmarked $19 billion in May to help farmers during the coronavirus pandemic, most of the money is going to corporate farmers, not small-scale farms in the Hood River Valley.

Along with funding and logistics, another pressing challenge is communication. Next Door Inc., a Hood River-based nonprofit organization, has enlisted more than 100 health workers to serve as outreach to the farming community, primarily a Latino population. Health workers share the importance of precautions and practices, such as physical distancing, hygiene, community transmission, and more.

“It’s not just translating these messages into Spanish,” explains Maija Yasui, who serves on the board, “but into user-level information that is understandable and clear.”

One Community Health, a nonprofit medical organization, offers on-site worker education sessions, orchardist support, and farmworker health clinics with COVID-19 screening.

Farms, fruit stands, processing plants, and wineries are also reinventing. Drive-by wine, curbside cider, and produce subscriptions may be the new normal.

“It’s easy to distance in the orchard and to mask-up in the wine processing,” says Don Bickford, who runs Bickford Orchard and co-owns, with his brother Steve, Mt. Hood Winery. “But it’s the winery, with the tasting room being closed, that’s really taken a hit.”

Farming is tough in the best of times, says Lisa Perry of Cody Orchards.

“There are a lot of things going against farms in this state right now,” says Lisa, a fifth-generation farmer who offers weekly produce boxes in a subscription system. “As for small veggie farms, they can’t just scale up overnight. There are a handful of serious small-scale farmers that have been able to rise to the occasion of more demand for local food due to this pandemic, but even they are struggling. There are challenges at every turn. I don’t know what else to do but put my head down and get the work done that I can.”

“Keep going” is a message heard throughout the Hood River Valley.

“With COVID, every situation has this ‘What do we do?’ component,” Maija says. “We can’t greet each other with hugs and homemade cookies, and that’s the hard part. That family feel is gone. Still, there’s that feeling among farmers that we’re all in this together.”