by Stephen Wagner

Because COVID-19 might be altering our lives forever, Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding participated in phone calls open to around 400 people the first time around, and more than 200 the second time. These took place under the auspices of Penn-Ag Industries, with Assistant Vice President Jessica Darr hosting the program. Executive Vice President Chris Herr said at the outset of the program that he and Sec. Redding have been in contact almost daily since the COVID onset.

“I want to say at the outset how much we appreciate the good work that’s being done, the patience folks have exhibited the last couple of weeks under this time we’re living and working in,” Redding said.

Q: In the packing industry, with regard to doctors who order self-quarantine for suspect exposure, would it be possible to classify processing workers in a different category so they can be tested and get their results within 24 hours so they can get back to work?

A: First of all, no such test exists that we are aware of to return results in 24 hours. Also, Department of Health guidance says that if you experience mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all, but have been exposed, you may not require testing at all.

Q: Regarding the shelter-in-place directive in life-sustaining jobs, especially in terms of employees reporting to work: Can the employer tell them to stay home and use vacation time or time off without pay? Do we have any insights to the rights the employer has in this situation?

A: It isn’t a shelter-in-place. It’s a stay-at-home. The designation has several exemptions. One is a life-sustaining business activity. So if you’re declared as life-sustaining, you have to look at the whole family as we’re talking about this. Having that designation, you have some latitude to travel to your work. You can do work in the service that’s been identified. An important point here is that anyone performing life-sustaining travel does not need paperwork to prove the reason for travel. Even with that designation, there is not a mandate.

Q: How can surrounding states’ restrictions be incorporated into Pennsylvania’s conversation? Is ag deemed essential and life-sustaining in states like New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, etc., and do the rules in PA apply to those states as well, and vice-versa?

A: Some of the states have stuck with the essential/non-essential, critical/non-critical, and we have elevated that from critical to life-sustaining. Therein lie some of the changes that have played out in terms of what businesses are operating and which are not. We have tried to monitor what the other states are doing for much of the movement of product. That is consistent across the country.

Q: There have been some price increases – I think eggs are a perfect example – in retail. We have some members who were concerned that the perception that our producers and processors had something to do with that. In many cases eggs have been losing, 30 out of the last 50 weeks, at a below-cost threshold. We just want to be sure how those prices happen.

A: We don’t know of any reported price gouging, specifically on ag products. Some retailers have gone to limiting the number of units you can purchase as a measure to control supply. That’s all I’m aware of other than the shelves just being empty.

Q: The main source of sawdust for animal bedding is furniture making, which is shut down right now. Therefore, sawdust must come from sawmills, lumbering and so on. Now a lot of those Amish sawmills are not operating out of fear that potentially they would not be permitted to operate. If this continues there could be a sawdust/bedding shortage. Is anything being done to spread the word among the Amish community that sawmills can operate? And are there other sources of access to sawdust out there?

A: The sawdust question got caught up in the forestry designation. From a supply standpoint we should be okay. I have spoken to three Amish bishops on different aspects on everything from livestock markets to sawmills. I think we can get some additional communication out. We’ve made hard copies to those bishops of our guidance documents and mailed them to them.

Q: How do we assure the consuming public that the food supply remains safe, considering that some enforcement of the food supply has been suspended?

A: The gist of it is giving the public assurances of a safe food supply when some of the compliance or oversight may be suspended. It’s making sure we message out the accordance from the Department standpoint that any of those facilities that we have oversight of will continue to receive oversight. One component of this is communication we’ve had with both the USDA and the FDA to make sure there aren’t gaps in the system.

Q: Financially speaking, is there any chance that DCED, or even from your perspective, is offering any type of funding or grants to help small businesses, farmers’ ag businesses, through this? The potential for FFA coming out with any program to assist from the ag lender’s perspective? They’re trying to be as much of a resource, as well, to their bank customers.

A: The only thing I’m aware of on the grant side is part of the stimulus package that Congress negotiated, and for the Senate to include some support for production agriculture. There’s been talk in a couple of different sectors. In the near term you may have heard about the Working Capital Access Program that provides some financial support.