Local farmers reflect on pandemic year — And the challenges ahead

Worker at Terra Firma Farm packing produce for clients, while follow social distance guidelines. Photo by Alicia Baddorf/Courtesy photo

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By Katherine Simpson
Express Correspondent

For Paul Underhill, of Terra Firma Farms, the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise.

“My overall experience with this whole year is that on the farm everyone has been working really hard,” said Underhill. “We’ve been really busy all year, but everyone is really grateful to be busy.”

This is not to say that their year has been without hiccups or losses. Over the last 10 years, Terra Firma Farms had transitioned from primarily selling CSA subscriptions to supplying large company kitchens at Bay Area tech businesses like Airbnb.

“When COVID hit, the whole thing flipped,” Underhill said. “It was like back to the future.”

Within the first two weeks of the pandemic, the number of subscribers to the Farm’s CSA jumped from 600 to 1,000 as orders from the business and restaurant clients dried up entirely.

The change in customer base disrupted some of the planning process for the farm, however, as CSA customers require smaller quantities and greater variety of crops than cafeteria kitchens.

“When summer came around we had to walk away from some crops that we just couldn’t sell,” said Underhill. “Throughout the summer we were making decisions, like we have to plant this instead of this.”

It’s not just Terra Firma’s business that has been fortunate this year, they’ve faced relatively few interruptions to field work due to the pandemic as well. So far, they’ve had no COVID-19 infections in their staff of about 40.

“We were fully expecting at some point, and obviously it could still happen,” Underhill said.

But so far this year, the biggest impact on their business has been from the fires in August.

“We were sending people home at noon some of those days. A couple days we didn’t let people come to work because it was so smoky,” he said.

Bruce Rominger, who works to run the larger Rominger Brothers Farms, alongside his brother Rick, had a similar pandemic story. He said that although the initial adjustment to the new pandemic reality was “a blur,” they’ve been able to keep operations running fairly smoothly.

Out of their total staff, Rominger Brothers has had only two positive cases — one employee who contracted the virus at home gave it to a second staff member. Other than that, they’ve implemented a mandatory mask policy alongside temperature checks, but haven’t suffered any total shutdowns due to infections.

“We certainly had some employee meetings right away in March and talked about washing your hands,” he said. “Even to this day we’re reminding people, ‘Get your mask on, get your mask on.’”

Rominger said that the main cost of the pandemic so far has been in terms of efficiency and lost time from calling employees to informational meetings or requiring a single check-in location so employees can have their temperature taken before heading out to a field somewhere on their 6,500 acre farm.

“Basically what we read into [the state COVID regulations] is that it was an additional burden required of us to educate our workers,” said Rominger.

Underhill and Rominger both expressed concern about the potential of employees traveling for the upcoming holiday. Even with relatively few interruptions to work due to COVID so far, both men recognized that they aren’t out of the woods yet.

“Our whole business could get disrupted because we have a lot of extended families working on our farm,” said Underhill.

Terra Firma Farms cut its annual Christmas vacation down from two weeks to one week, since many employees said they wouldn’t be traveling home for Christmas anyway.

Both Underhill and Rominger felt uncertain about the future, particularly as vaccine distribution gets underway.

Although most of Rominger Brothers’ field workers have returned to Mexico for the winter, according to Rominger the months ahead will be critical.

“Starting in April or March we have to have our employees every day or crops die,” said Rominger.

He said that he hopes agricultural workers will be counted among the “essential” personnel who receive the vaccine soon after health care workers and employees of residential care facilities.

Vaccine or no vaccine, “we’re gonna have to come back to work either way,” said Rominger.

Similarly, Underhill is uncertain as to how Terra Firma Farms business may or may not evolve as the pandemic winds down. Some of his restaurant clients have gone out of business since March, and he knows that many of the cafeterias who used to buy their produce will be closed at least through the summer of 2021.

“I don’t want anybody to think I’m happy about the pandemic,” Underhill said. “We feel really lucky to be able to keep doing what we do.”

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