Agricultural businesses continue to be allowed to operate in Pennsylvania even as many other sectors have been shut down to slow the coronavirus.
But in some cases, it’s not quite clear who exactly counts as agriculture.
Ag Secretary Russell Redding offered some clarity on Wednesday in a virtual question-and-answer session with PennAg Industries Association.
Jessica Darr, an assistant vice president of the trade group, said she has received questions from nonprofit urban farms whose boards fear they could lose their nonprofit status by operating right now.
Redding said all farms are able to operate regardless of ZIP code, and he’d be willing to follow up with local officials to reinforce that position.
“The approach we’ve taken is it’s all food,” he said.
Darr said many sawmills are not operating because the owners believe they don’t have permission.
The temporary closure of sawmills, as well as furniture workshops, could conceivably lead to a shortage of sawdust bedding for livestock, she said.
In fact, sawmills, plywood makers and other wood product manufacturers are OK to operate, so a sawdust shortage should not be a problem, Redding said.
The Ag Department has been working to get that message out to the Plain Sect people who operate many of the state’s wood product businesses.
The agency has mailed a set of agricultural guidance documents to the state’s Amish bishops, and Redding said he has spoken to three of those leaders about sawmills as well as farming concerns.
Unlike wood-products makers, the green industry — garden centers, landscapers, mulch producers, even power equipment businesses — still exists in a bit of a gray area.
For the moment, Redding said he has been encouraging those companies to request a waiver to keep operating from the Department of Community and Economic Development.
The agency has already received 15,000 waiver requests from businesses of all types.
When submitting a waiver, businesses should make clear why they contribute to essential agricultural functions.
“That’s got to be a very direct connection that’s made and not an assumption,” Redding said.
To fight the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all non-life sustaining businesses to close their physical locations effective March 23.
Farms, food processors, agricultural haulers and feed mills are among the businesses that are allowed to remain open to maintain the food supply.
Other states may have slightly different rules for who can stay open. Pennsylvania is allowing livestock auctions to operate, while some states are not.
But the Ag Department has no reports of problems with interstate or international movement of ag products, said Greg Hostetter, a deputy ag secretary.
No matter the state, staying open during the shutdown does not give a business a free pass.
The company is responsible for operating in a way that minimizes people’s exposure to and the possible spread of COVID-19.
“Just because your business is life-sustaining does not mean business as usual,” Redding said. “Only if you are truly life-sustaining should you be operating, and only those portions of your business that are life-sustaining should remain open.”
Employees who can work from home should be directed to do so, and when people must be physically present, businesses should spread them out to minimize contact.
That could mean running staggered shifts at an agribusiness, placing customers at different ends of a pick-your-own field, or requiring that boarding stable visitors make an appointment.
During the call, Redding frequently pointed listeners to guidance documents that the Ag Department has prepared to help businesses operate appropriately during the coronavirus pandemic.
Other states have been looking to those documents as models, Hostetter said.
The guidance documents are available here:
Essential Agricultural Businesses:
Farms and On-Farm Deliveries:
Farmers Markets and
Food Processors and