As new emergency coronavirus regulations were falling from on high like citrus blossoms in the spring, farm advocates, such as Hannah Gbeh, of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, were battling to earn farmers some respect for the essential work they do feeding people.
With the Farm Bureau office in Escondido closed and employees working from home, Gbeh has been lobbying for farming to be considered a vital if not irreplaceable component of the economy.
Gbeh told The Times-Advocate Wednesday, “The issue at hand is making sure that all local, state and federal policy makers understand that farming should be called an essential business.” The first battle was to get local authorities to restore the farmers market permits that had been revoked in the City of San Diego and were being considered elsewhere.
This was a problem in every county in the Golden State, especially in the six Bay Area counties where residents are essentially in lockdown.
“We understand the perspective and we heard that shoppers showed up in tears at the farmers market because there was nothing on the shelves of the supermarkets,” said Gbeh. Only to find nothing because their farmers markets were not operating.
The California farm bureaus in unison reached out to the Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, Karen Ross, and representatives of the state farm bureaus teleconferenced with the secretary.
The farmers market issue came up through CDFA issued guidance for how the farmers markets can safety operate.
“We have coordinated with San Diego Agriculture, Weights and Measures and the mayor of San Diego has changed the directive and this morning [Wednesday] they said all our markets can operate under conditions that ensure public safety is preserved,” she said.
Gbeh added, “We are delighted to hear that. San Diego is serving as the model for other counties. Farmers markets need to be considered the same as grocery stores—and even more because they are outdoors and thus safer. It is imperative that we do not cut off the food supply and ensure that there is a robust food source. We are grateful to our policy makers.
“Across the state jurisdiction by jurisdiction, local agencies are making the decision. The majority of local governments are looking to their department of health for direction. That’s’ why it was crucial to get the state to chime in,” she said.
Now each farm bureau will be required to submit a plan to demonstrate how customers will be kept at a safe social distance with no more than 50 allowed at a time. Once the plans are approved, the markets can begin operating again.
The SD County Farm Bureau operates two farmers markets, n City Heights and Linda Vista. Like all the other such markets, the Bureau must submit a plan and wait until its approved.
The next issue is dealing with “shelter-in-place” orders, such as exist in the six counties of the Bay Area, although not in San Diego County—yet. They include exemptions for “essential services.” The Farm Bureau has fought to ensure that farming is considered an “essential” service.
“We can’t shut down packing houses, garden centers, nurseries,” said Gbeh, who says state farm bureaus have “gotten great responses from policy makers.”
When provided examples of jurisdictions where farming is considered essential, from Ohio and Pennsylvania, and Monterey County, most policymakers have been persuaded.
The message of the day is, “Making sure that agriculture is not shut down and we are not bound by shelter in place orders,” she said. “You can’t put your food supply on hold. Everybody in the ag community stands ready to moderate our operations. We understand how challenging this situation is and we are here to help. This is unprecedented.”