May 15, 2020
NCAE column: Amid the chaos, farmers lace up their boots for work

The only thing missing was the spooky music from a B-movie horror film.

That’s kind of what I thought to myself as I headed into the Metro station to come into work this morning. Typically, hundreds of passengers heading to and from the district throng the escalators. Today, there was just me and one other person heading down and, no one coming up.

Rather eerie.

When I boarded my train, it was more of the same. The car, usually teeming with over 100 passengers on a typical day, today only carried 12. And, they were all well-spaced apart.

As I walked from my stop to the office, I passed by stores and restaurants bearing signs and placards saying “Closed” or “Sorry for the Inconvenience.” But, looking in, everything was dark. No employees seemed to be around. Disturbingly, it didn’t appear they’d be coming back soon.

The streets were still too. Often, you hear the honking of horns from taxis harassing pedestrians in the crosswalk or one another on the streets. You usually see buses on the avenues loaded with passengers and hear as drivers press on the air brakes before rumbling on. But, not this morning.

Now that I think of it, I don’t even recall the sounds of birds tweeting as I walked along, and there was very little breeze to rustle the leaves still left on the sidewalk.

The familiarity of the front door to my building gave me some comfort. So, too, did the beep of the security system as I let myself in and headed to the elevator. The entry was quiet but that was typical. Few others arrive in our offices before 9 a.m. but not all of them work with farmers.

I set about to work, catching up on overnight emails and planning for our conference call later in the day. I composed a couple of notes to the Department of Labor and our friends at USDA. I, likewise, spent time reviewing materials forwarded to me by a law firm.

As I grabbed a cup of coffee around 10:15 a.m., I heard one of my suitemates striding down the hall. He’s a bit noisy. I had a chance to say hi, to which he responded as he headed out the door on his way to someplace else. Then I was alone in the office once again.

Our office houses 16 people. With travel schedules and out-of-office meetings being what they are, we usually have about 10 people there every day. But, not today.

Something had changed.

The World Health Organization was calling it a global pandemic, the breadth and scope of which I have never seen. People were being directed to hunker down and not interact directly. In fact, they were being encouraged to telework. Conference calls were okay but inperson meetings should be avoided. Travel plans could be rearranged.

As I returned to my desk, a lot of different thoughts were running around in my head. Most of my thoughts turned to what this meant for the farmers and ranchers I work with. What must this mean for them?

Agricultural labor shortages have grown endemic. Endemic to the point that workers from foreign countries are annually recruited for temporary positions in the U.S. These workers are critical as they augment the too few domestic workers who apply for and accept jobs working on farms and ranches.

Absent a workforce, crops don’t get planted, nurtured and harvested and food goes to waste.

In the face of this pandemic, will workers be able to get to their jobs whether they are domestic or temporary foreign workers? How can we keep workers spaced in the fields and orchards so that someone feeling ill doesn’t share with the individual working alongside them? What do we do if someone exhibits symptoms and how distant is the medical care necessary to treat the worker?

With all of the uncertainty and craziness swirling around, I knew that two things were certain.

Farmers and ranchers would wake up each morning, lace up their boots and head out the door to greet another day so that Americans won’t have to search for food. I also knew that the National Council of Agricultural Employers was backing them up so they could do what they do best.

I finished my coffee and relished the quiet of my lonely office. And, like the people I work with, greeted the day and got back to work.

— Michael Marsh, president & CEO, National Council of Agricultural Employers

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