MAYS LANDING — Paul E. Galletta, the co-owner of the Atlantic Blueberry Co. farm here, knows he has been fortunate so far as he manages a harvesting season during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Galletta needs a crew of about 60 workers to pick blueberries. So far, only two workers have tested positive for having the new coronavirus, Galletta said. They recovered from it.
Atlantic Blueberry Co. also has a farm on Weymouth Road in Hammonton.
As of Sunday, Hammonton had a total of 584 positive COVID-19 cases, the highest by far in Atlantic County, according to the county health department. Atlantic City was next at 382.
“All of us were nervous. We didn’t know if there would be the manpower from a harvest crew that would be allowed to come. Everything was so uncertain,” Galletta said. “Everything is more layered now, and more labor intensive to go through the safety precautions.”
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Lunch breaks have been broken up into smaller groups. Disinfectant is being used from the BioBlasting company based in Egg Harbor Township in the common areas that are used by multiple workers at once, such as the place where they watch instructional videos on a television.
On a recent Tuesday, Galletta was out in the fields with his supervisor Pete Cruz, 49, while the workers were picking blueberries. The workers were in Florida earlier this year. Cruz said he feels comfortable around them.
“Everybody has been checked. We are all wearing our masks,” Cruz said. “They provide the hand sanitizers, stuff that we need to wash our hands. When we load the people up on the bus, we were told by our boss, ‘Don’t fill the bus up with people,’” he added. “It might take five loads to get everybody in the fields, but we are taking the precautions that they asked us to.”
Denny Doyle, a longtime blueberry farmer who is on the New Jersey Blueberry Council, said keeping workers 6 feet apart while they are picking fruit in the field can be done without much disturbance to farming operations.
The buses that take workers from their sleeping quarters to the fields are not crowded, Doyle said. The buses are able to hold 50 people, but only 25 people are on each bus, he said.
Adjustments also have been made in the sleeping quarters where workers need to be put up, Doyle said. The numbers have been cut in the half in the unit where they sleep. Some type of barrier, which can be a fireproof-type cloth, has been put between the beds, based on the information Doyle has received from blueberry growers. Hand sanitizers also have been added.
The largest group of people harvest fruit in Atlantic County from June 15 through July 15, Doyle said.
“We knew we needed the advice of the medical community,” Doyle said. “We were outreaching to the medical professionals. The medical community has been wonderful.”
Agriculture is a billion dollar-a-year industry in the Garden State. Besides blueberries, farmers across this state are among the nation’s leading growers and sellers of crops such as cranberries, peaches, tomatoes and corn, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez.
So far, the labor is available for the harvesting of peaches starting this week through the middle of September, said Thomas Beaver, one of the directors of the New Jersey Peach Promotion Council, Inc., which is based in Glassboro, Gloucester County. Cranberries will start to be harvested in October and continue through November, Beaver said.
As of July 4, Cumberland County had 3,005 positive COVID-19 cases compared with Atlantic County’s 2,926 cases, but Atlantic County has had more confirmed deaths compared (206) with Cumberland County (134).
David Sheppard has been a farmer for 48 years. Sheppard is the owner and operator of the organic Jersey Legacy Farms LLC in Cedarville, Lawrence Township, Cumberland County. There is no problem with COVID-19 at his farm, he said.
“We are supplying the safety masks. They already had gloves,” said Sheppard, who added there is no problem with social distancing in the field. “A lot of them are bringing in their own masks.”
Sheppard has 15 people working on his farm. Most of them are local, from nearby Bridgeton. He farms about 100 acres of his 200 acres of land. He grows 20 acres of lettuce, 15 acres of peppers, 10 acres each of tomatoes and squash and five acres of cabbage and kale.
Operating his farm this year is more difficult than last year with the specter of the COVID-19 outbreak hanging over his head, Sheppard said.
“You have to recognize what can happen if you don’t do it right,” said Sheppard, 70.