Essential workers employed by California cantaloupe growers are among some of the first front-line food workers to receive COVID-19 vaccines in the state which grows the vast majority of our nation’s fruits and vegetables.
“We’re so thankful to be able to offer our workers these life-saving vaccines,” said Garrett Patricio of Westside Produce Co., a cantaloupe harvesting, packing and shipping company located in Firebaugh, California. “Farmworkers are just one of the many groups who need and want to be vaccinated, and we urge federal and state leaders to get more shots in more arms of more workers as quickly as possible.”
This week, more than 800 arms that pick, pack and cultivate cantaloupe will receive shots, all thanks to the quick work of a team comprised of Patricio, California Secretary of Food Agriculture Karen Ross, local healthcare provider Valley Health Team, the Fresno County Department of Public Health and the Fresno Ag Commissioner’s office.
Firebaugh is located in Fresno County, which is the leading agriculture county in California and produces most of the state’s cantaloupe. In total, California grows about 75 percent of the fresh cantaloupe consumed in the U.S. None of which would be possible without essential workers who harvest and pack the fruit.
In addition to Westside Produce, other cantaloupe companies instrumental in securing vaccines for their workers include Del Bosque Enterprises, R&N Packing Company and Toma-Tek Firebaugh.
“Fresno County Department of Health has been working to make sure we have a plan in place for vaccinating farm employees,” said Tom Fuller, who works for the county health department as the liaison to the ag industry. “We’ve tested this plan, and it’s working successfully as we’re seeing with these vaccination events involving cantaloupe growers. We’re ready to do this in a big way as soon as more vaccines become available through the state.”
“As soon as we learned an opportunity might exist to have our employees vaccinated, we jumped at it,” said Patricio. “Unfortunately, vaccines for essential front-line workers throughout the food industry, along with seniors, teachers and others, are extremely limited in California. We knew that if we missed this chance, we might not have the opportunity again for many, many months. The situation is dire, and we do hope solutions that allow more people to be vaccinated will be coming soon.”
According to Patricio, vaccinations at a majority of the county’s cantaloupe farming operations were made possible by quickly reaching out to local government officials and securing an approved health provider.
“It was critically important that Valley Health, which has a clinic here in Firebaugh, was already an approved provider for the vaccine,” he said. “We are just so fortunate to have pulled this off.”
Over the past week, Patricio and other local cantaloupe growers have been able to hold a series of drive-thru vaccination events at their operations. In addition to medical staff from Valley Health Team who are administering the vaccines, local law enforcement has been brought in to help manage traffic and other logistical challenges.
“I was very happy that me and my husband got the chance to get the vaccine shot. It was very organized, and I was glad we stayed in our cars,” said Maricela Gonzalez, who works packing asparagus and cantaloupe for Turlock Fruit Co.
“We’re offering vaccines to any of our employees who wish to receive them, but we’re not requiring anyone to do so,” said Patricio. “Most workers are anxious to be protected from COVID by getting vaccinated, but not everyone has agreed to receive it.”
Patricio explains this means cantaloupe farmers will need to continue enforcing safety measures put in place during last season’s harvest to make sure workers are protected. The cantaloupe industry was able to get by with relatively few COVID outbreak incidents last year, but it’s been a challenge for everyone. Vaccines will go a long way to help reduce risk among workers.
“This is why it’s just so critically important that we get more vaccines,” he said. “Protecting our essential workforce is a top priority for us all.”