State Ag. Department lays out updated guidelines to protect farm laborers

Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry is being asked to abide by new state regulations to accommodate seasonal farm workers, including those with guest H-2A status, during the coronavirus pandemic.

The commonwealth is home to more than 360 permitted farm labor camps, totaling nearly 4,300 workers, according to the state Department of Agriculture. They are primarily migrant workers, sourced by individual private companies, or they have H-2A status and are federally sourced.

Guidelines announced this week for the agriculture sector are in addition to April 15 orders from state Health Secretary Rachel Levine, ordering protections for critical workers who are employed at businesses authorized to maintain in-person operations during the coronavirus disaster emergency. Levine ordered businesses to conduct routine cleaning and sanitizing as well as protocols for when a worker is diagnosed with COVID-19.

“We will have our food safety inspectors in the fields monitoring the guidance document and certainly making sure these employers in the agriculture community adhere to what the governor and Dr. Levine have laid out,” Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said at a virtual press call Tuesday.

Updated guidelines specifically for the state’s agricultural sector released on Monday require any owner or operator of a seasonal farm labor camp permit in the commonwealth to use enhancements to living quarters that minimize the risk and potential exposure to the coronavirus.

Housing facilities must have six feet of distance between beds, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, and beds are required to position workers head to toe to limit exposure to respiratory droplets.

Adequate ventilation is required in habitable rooms, the guidance stipulates. That means 45% of the window area is required to be openable or a device must be installed to supply ventilation.

For workers who manifest COVID-19 symptoms — fever, cough or shortness of breath — farm employers are directed to have a plan in place for isolated housing accommodations, with separate sleeping, cooking and bathing facilities.

Transportation requirements are also in place for workers to maintain social distancing and safety as they travel to their worksite, purchase essential supplies and have access to toilet facilities. Farm employers are ordered to limit the number of workers transported at one time and maintain six feet of physical separation and install ventilation systems in vehicles.

“These guidelines are in addition to [health department guidelines], admittedly not enforced, but a clear expectation that just as we have made the case that agriculture is critical and life-sustaining, the only way that that is allowed to happen is to ensure that we protect these workers,” Redding said. “We would have the expectation that [employers] would do everything they can to implement this guidance.”

GIANT to invest $114 million in store upgrades, Philly fulfillment center

GIANT Food Stores LLC will invest $114 million over the next year in projects in Pennsylvania, company officials announced during a Thursday morning press conference at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg.

Giant Food Stores to invest $144 million in Pennsylvania
GIANT Food Stores President Nicholas Bertram stands at the podium with Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding by his side during a press conference at the Pennsylvania Farm Show. (Photo: Michael Yoder)

The investment will be used to create a new GIANT DIRECT ecommerce fulfillment center outside of Philadelphia, open two new stores, including one in Swatara Township, Dauphin County, and remodel 35 existing stores, company President Nicholas Bertram announced at the Pennsylvania Farm Show, accompanied by state Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding and Pennsylvania Department of Community & Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin.

“We’re doubling down on growth and innovation for our customers, building on the incredible momentum of 2019, and continuing to invest in our great Commonwealth,” Bertram said.

Last year saw major changes and growth for the Middlesex Township-based company, including the opening of 17 new stores and the launch of two new brands. Last January, the grocer debuted its new GIANT Heirloom Market format in the Graduate Hospital neighborhood of Philadelphia, followed by locations in University City and the Northern Liberties. In February, the company opened a first-of-its kind GIANT DIRECT ecommerce hub in Lancaster, and then rolled out the GIANT DIRECT concept to 125 locations.

“The accelerated growth of GIANT DIRECT has set the stage for additional investment opportunities that extend our ecommerce geographic reach,” Bertram said. “At the same time, our GIANT Heirloom Market format has enabled us to reach an entirely new demographic in Philadelphia.

Final grant program introduced from Pa. Farm Bill

A $1 million grant program created to enhance the long-term health and vitality of Pennsylvania’s family farms was introduced Wednesday in front of hundreds of public officials at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

The Farm Vitality Grant Program is the last of the grant programs financed under Gov. Tom Wolf’s $23.1 million Pa. Farm Bill, the state’s first.

“Just as farmers are at the heart of Pennsylvania and its heritage, the heart of the Pa. Farm Bill is the Ag Business Development Center and its $1 million Farm Vitality Grant Program,” said Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding. “We need Pennsylvania farm families to have sound business plans, because their success is Pennsylvania’s success.”

The Farm Vitality Grant Program is designed to help fund professional services for individuals and families planning for the future of their farm. Officials say the program will enhance the long-term health and vitality of farms through business planning, efficient transitions of farm ownership, strategic farm expansion, diversification of agricultural production and financial and technical expertise.

The state Farm Bill also includes programs to tackle other issues in the agricultural community, including the Agriculture Linked Investment Program to provide low-interest loans for conservation practices, the Farm-to-School Grant Program to increase nutrition and agriculture education opportunities in schools, and the Specialty Crop Block Program investing in Pennsylvania crops like hardwoods, hemp and hops.