COVID-19: I’m a farmer and I am afraid – what are my risks?

The daily risk associated with COVID-19 can be lessened greatly by social or physical distancing – that is, avoiding direct contact or being six feet or more from persons who could be infected or spaces where those with the infection are located. People can spread the virus if they have the infection, even if they have no symptoms. The current direction from the Governor of Wisconsin is to “stay home” through the “Safer at Home” policy. This is explained at:  https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/prepare.htm

However, farmers and those who produce crops, milk, livestock, and other farm products often must work in fields, barns, dairy parlors, shops, etc. as they continue to work hard to feed the world. Farmers are considered essential workers as identified in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) memo https://www.cisa.gov/publication/guidance-essential-critical-infrastructure-workforce

It is important to know that if you live on a farm that has physical space surrounding the property, that COVID-19 virus cannot suddenly “show up” on your farm. It is transmitted by a person who is infected through droplets in the air or droplets that directly or indirectly reach contaminated surfaces. An example of direct contact would be a person who sneezes onto another person or onto a surface. Indirect transfer would be from a person sneezing or coughing into their hand and then opening a door and transferring virus to the door handle.

“Contaminated” surfaces can include hands (through handshaking, etc.). But, they can also include doorknobs, fuel pump handles, trailer hitches, and other objects. We are working on separate guidance connected to the risk associated with viral particles that could be found on the containers of products delivered to the farm. However that risk is much, much smaller than the risk associated with interacting with an infected person.

If a person who has COVID-19 is sick and sneezes or coughs, they emit small liquid droplets  (saliva, mucous, etc.) that contain the virus. Some of these droplets can be seen but most are tiny and not visible. Over time, these tiny “droplets” fall from the air. In indoor spaces, recent research shows that viral particles that come from sneezes, coughs, etc. can actually hover in indoor air for several hours and settle downward very slowly (one study suggests at least three hours). But, when outside, it is believed that risks diminish when an infected person is at least six feet away. Further away is always better. When you are outside, wind and air movement will also serve to disperse the virus, but should not be viewed as a replacement for distancing. Exposure to sunlight kills the virus.

Much of the work and activity done on farms, people are working either by themselves, outside, or six feet (or further away) from others. So, risks for most farmers and farm workers are likely lower than if working in a crowded indoor space (like an office) or attending an event where multiple people have gathered (school events, church services, and restaurants). However, we are still concerned about farm operators becoming infected since our average farm operator in Wisconsin is close to 60 years old. Symptoms tend to be worse for older individuals, though the U.S. has also seen severe illness in younger individuals. For younger AND older farmers, you should follow ALL prevention guidelines provided by the state and federal government.

These prevention actions include avoiding or minimizing even casual contact with others — or the surfaces they may have previously touched, or sneezed/coughed on. Examples of points of contact you may not have considered include going to the local gas station to pick up a newspaper or “visiting” and shaking hands with someone who might show up at your farm like a consultant, friend or salesperson. When you need parts or farm supplies, call ahead and have your order ready and follow the business’s procedures for pick-up. When you must go to buy groceries, medicines, and other needed products, avoid times of heavy shopping traffic and consider using drive through services (like at the pharmacy). Wash your hands often and also consider cleaning your steering wheel, vehicle handles and other surfaces you (or others) might come in contact with. Recommendations from Wisconsin’s Department of Health Services and the U.S. CDC includes frequent handwashing, not touching your face/eyes/mouth, and other critical measures found at: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/covid-19/protect.htm  Check back with this site often.

If you are operating a farm with workers who live and travel from homes and spaces AWAY from the farm, the risks are obviously higher. It is difficult to know and track all places your employees or their family members/friends have been. See additional guidance for farms with non-family employees or others who work on the farm but live elsewhere https://farms.extension.wisc.edu/covid-19-guidance-for-farm-employers/

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