All of the roughly 200 employees on a produce farm in Tennessee tested positive for COVID-19 this month. In New Jersey, more than 50 workers had the virus at a farm in Gloucester County, adding to nearly 60 who fell ill in neighboring Salem County. Almost 170 were reported to get the disease at a tomato and strawberry greenhouse complex in Oneida, New York.
The outbreaks underscore the latest coronavirus threat to America's food supply: Farm workers are getting sick and spreading the illness just as the U.S. heads into the peak of the summer produce season. In all likelihood, the cases will keep climbing as more than half a million seasonal employees crowd onto buses to move among farms across the country and get housed together in cramped bunkhouse-style dormitories.
The early outbreaks are already starting to draw comparisons to the infections that plunged the U.S. meat industry into crisis over the past few months. Analysts and experts are warning that thousands of farm workers are vulnerable to contracting the disease.
Aside from the most immediate concern -- the grave danger that farmhands face -- the outbreaks could also create labor shortages at the worst possible time. Produce crops such as berries have a short life span, with only a couple of weeks during which they can be harvested. If a farm doesn't have enough workers to collect crops in that window, they're done for the season and the fruit will rot. A spike in virus cases among workers may mean shortages of some fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, along with higher prices.
"We're watching very, very nervously -- the agricultural harvest season is only starting now," said Michael Dale, executive director of the Northwest Workers' Justice Project in Portland, Oregon, and a lawyer who has represented farm workers for 40 years. "I don't think we're ready. I don't think we're prepared."
Unlike grain crops that rely on machinery, America's fruits and vegetables are mostly picked and packed by hand, in long shifts out in the open -- a typically undesirable job in major economies. So the position typically goes to immigrants, who make up about three quarters of U.S. farm workers.
A workforce of seasonal migrants travels across the nation, following harvest patterns. Most come from Mexico and Latin America through key entry points like southern California, and go further by bus, often for hours, sometimes for days.
There are as many as 2.7 million hired farm workers in the U.S., including migrant, seasonal, year-round and guest-program workers, according to the Migrant Clinicians Network. While many migrants have their permanent residence in the U.S., moving from location to location during the warmer months, others enter through the federal H2A visa program. Still, roughly half of hired crop farmworkers lack legal immigration status, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
These are some of the most vulnerable populations in the U.S., subjected to tough working conditions for little pay and meager benefits. Most don't have access to adequate health care. Many don't speak English.
Without them, it would be nearly impossible to keep America's produce aisles filled. And yet, there's no one collecting national numbers on how many are falling sick.