Late last month, Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm received a last-minute call from her neighbor Jim Durst. His farm, Durst Organic Growers in the Capay Valley northwest of Sacramento, was hosting an onsite vaccination clinic for the farmworkers he employs and those on neighboring farms—about 200 total. As the day drew to a close there were about 20 doses left and he thought of Full Belly, and offered the extras to Redmond’s staff—if they could get to the farm quickly.
Redmond employs about 65 farmworkers throughout the year, and even getting close to 20 of her staff vaccinated was a relief. “I think we would have a much better, less stressful season if we all get vaccinated,” she said.
Her farm relies on additional seasonal workers to help out during peak harvest season, many of whom live in high-density quarters and work in close proximity to each other—conditions that have caused huge outbreaks in farmworker communities. Getting her staff vaccinated before new workers arrive for the spring harvest is urgent, but it’s unclear how and when the rest of her staff will get their shots.
In Yolo County, where Full Belly Farm and Durst Organic Growers are located, county public health services are working with farms that have more than 100 employees to set up onsite vaccination clinics—100 workers being the minimum number to make the involved set-up worthwhile and efficient, from the county’s perspective. In other counties around California, including Fresno, public health departments are partnering with agricultural companies to host job-site vaccination sites for their workers.
For many farmers and farmworkers, determining where vaccines are being administered and who can get access has been a logistical maelstrom.
Even when the pandemic upended our food system, shuttering restaurants, schools, and farmers’ markets overnight, workers in farm fields and processing plants continued working in high-density environments, often lacking sufficient personal protective equipment.
“They never stopped working during the pandemic, they were never put on pause,” said Hernan Hernandez, executive director of the nonprofit California Farmworker Foundation (CFF).
In early February, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that farmworkers were eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. But the rollout has been haphazard at best. That’s why some farms are taking it upon themselves to ensure that their workers get immunized. And many advocates are navigating the system trying to connect the dots for these marginalized workers.
Navigating a Chaotic Rollout
For many farmers and farmworkers, determining where vaccines are being administered and who can get access has been a logistical maelstrom, farmworker advocates say. Every county has its own protocols and limited vaccine availability, and it’s unclear whether vaccines will be administered at job sites or through county-organized clinics.
“If you go to the county and say, ‘Why aren’t agricultural workers getting any vaccines?’ they’ll say the state doesn’t allow them to [take action]; you go to the state, and the state tells you it’s the county’s fault. Nobody wants to take responsibility,” said Hernandez.
The lack of a central authority or protocol means Hernandez keeps track of each county’s vaccine availability, coordinating with county public health departments, state agencies, and private agricultural businesses. Added to that, Hernandez notes that many farmworkers are likely to move among counties, following jobs as harvest seasons shift, with some even returning to Mexico—a fact that complicates getting farmworkers their second dose of the vaccine. The newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires just one dose, might be helpful in these situations, but it’s unclear when and whether farmworkers will be receiving them.
So far, Hernandez has overseen vaccination initiatives that include pop-up clinics at farms as well as more ad hoc distributions, at times shuttling workers to sites where there are leftover doses. In the Central Valley’s Tulare County, for example, Hernandez coordinates the distribution of surplus doses from local sites.