While many Minnesotans went virtual in 2020, agri-food was never an industry that could just stop or shift to working from home. From caring for livestock to harvesting, processing, or transporting food, protecting the food supply chain is critical to our health and security. And our industry could not have done it without our dedicated, amazing frontline workers.
As a coalition representing Minnesota’s diverse agri-food industry, from farmers to food processors, AgriGrowth and its members have been vocal advocates for the early-stage vaccination of our essential workers. We are pleased Gov. Tim Walz included our industry in the next phase of vaccinations this spring.
Many of our members have stepped up and asked how they can help expedite the vaccination process for their workers and communities. Whether it’s helping inoculate, storing vaccines in their cold storage, or coordinating community vaccinations sites, we want to help end this pandemic as quickly as possible. We are hopeful the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, and state and federal leaders continue to work with us and see agri-food as a key partner in vaccinating against COVID-19 and ending this pandemic.
Of course, vaccination is just one part of keeping our frontline workers safe. Throughout the pandemic, the No. 1 priority I heard from every agri-food organization was protecting their workforce and stopping the spread of COVID-19. No plant, processor, or business can function well if employees aren’t healthy or don’t feel safe.
Agri-food boasts thousands of essential workers in every corner of our state, and our members developed numerous new policies, greater flexibility for essential workers, and rigorous safety protocols to keep workers safe.
As Cargill CEO David MacLennan said late last year in the Wall Street Journal, “We never put production over worker safety. We have predeclared values. When you put that as your filter, that makes decision-making very easy. Certainly, there were pressures to do what’s best for the country and making sure people are fed, but our primary concern was for our employees’ safety.”
Thankfully, advanced cleaning and safety measures were already an integral part of our industry, even before COVID-19. Sanitizing, handwashing, and protecting against foodborne illnesses is part of everyday life in agri-food. With COVID-19, our industry quickly stepped up to do even more, with free personal-protective equipment (PPE), separation barriers where six feet or more of distancing was a challenge, improved air purification, staggered breaks and shifts to improve social distancing, and more. Not to say our industry didn’t face challenges, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, but we adapted and operated under the guidance of the USDA, OSHA, CDC, and other government agencies, heeding the latest science-based health and safety guidelines.
Agri-food frontline workers are behind-the-scenes heroes in this pandemic. Millions in bonus pay, flexible scheduling, unlimited sick time for anyone feeling ill or taking care of an ill loved one, and protections against financial hardship due to COVID-19 are just some of the ways our industry has been supporting our workers. And they in turn have been ensuring that every American family has access to a safe, healthy food supply.
One year in, and we are still facing many challenges around COVID-19, but things are looking a bit brighter every day. The agri-food industry continues to be a critical asset to Minnesota and our nation.
When you eat dinner tonight, don’t forget our amazing frontline workers and an industry dedicated to feeding the world.
Tamara Nelsen is executive director of AgriGrowth (agrigrowth.org), an agricultural and food-industry advocacy nonprofit based in St. Paul, with members across Minnesota.