Gardner brings it down to earth in Fort Lupton

Fort Lupton Press
August 12, 2020

By Belen Ward August 12, 2020

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner brought his “Farm Tour” to Fort Lupton Aug. 8 to talk about issues or concerns. He stopped at Sakata Farms near Fort Lupton. Several farm owners from around the areas came to meet the senator, as did Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine.

Gardner got a first-hand account of coronavirus’ impacts on the farming business.

Dave Petrocco, who owns Petrocco Farms, said due to COVID, food services are way down because schools and restaurants are closed.

“For operations in Colorado and surrounding states, about 70 percent of what we produce is sold to supermarkets. The other 30 percent is the food services such as schools. The 30 percent? We think its 90 percent down. I think supermarkets are down because a lot of people are unemployed and don’t have the money to spend on vegetables,” said Petrocco.

“I went to the county fair. You cannot leave without having a fair burger,” Gardner joked. “You have to have onions on the burger. They said there were no onions because farmers couldn’t get them out fast enough. It will change over time as people get used to this.”

Gardner said COVID testing sites have to continue. He and Sen. Michael Bennet are working on a bill, the “Test Act,” which could create a national diagnostic and reporting plan with state and local public health departments, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control. If approved, the test act would develop more rapid kinds of tests.

“It’s a plan on how do we identify hot spots before they become outbreaks and before we shut down states, towns, and counties. So that’s part of the testing,” said Gardner. “We heard a story about an Israeli technology of a breathalyzer that you could see it a minute you if you have COVID or not. Whether it works or not, how do we get that technology?”

Gardner’s vision is to have a test available through such stores as 7-Eleven.

“You can keep it your glove compartment. If you are on your way to work and have a headache and you are feeling sick, you can take the test. Then you don’t go to work infecting anybody because you got the result right away,” said Gardner

Another piece of the legislation includes vaccines and treatments.

“We are talking about the most promising products, and we are going to advance purchase hundreds and millions of doses,” he said. “If it is approved, we can immediately give the doses to the people. It will be a unique approach for the American people and have that availability. “

Gardner said Congress wants to make sure it’s the kind of vaccine that may prevent you from getting the virus or reduces the illness that you may not get as sick.

“When will we get the vaccine? We are hearing various things from this fall to the end of the year time frame. They are manufacturing doses as we speak for several of the most promising vaccines,” said Gardner.

Petrocco said farmers were having a hard time getting thermometers for temperature checks.

“We check temperatures of all are workers before they start ork,” he said. “We just got them in two weeks ago and search all over the world for them.”

Bob Sakata recommended a website called Energized Colorado.

“ They sell PPE products. They may be more expensive. The quality has been verified. The masks are tested by Colorado State University. It drowns out 95 percent of the particles,” said Sakata.

Derrick Hoffman and his wife own Hoffman Produce near Greeley.

“Half of our vegetables are sold inschools K-12 and universities. All summer long, the other half of the product goes to direct consumers and farmers markets. We saw a huge demand on the consumer side with panic buying, which offset with the school closing,” said Hoffman. “Going into the school year, we are hoping things would turn to normal.”

Hoffman said when schools closed, sales were down.

“We have been contacting the schools we sell to. They still have to feed kids, whether it’s online learning. They don’t know what it is going to look like and are looking at things that require less processing and labor,” he said. “We will see what happens.”

The USDA government grant program is helping not only the food pantries but it also helps the farmers. Once the food pantries receive a grant they have to buy the product from the local farms.

“I want to give credit to the government and the USDA to help when sales were going down. It opened a market in the Denver area. Our sales are getting above then we expected with these grants,” said Hoffman. “ I would like to see that kind of stuff continue.

But it wasn’t the only item up for discussion. Dave Petrocco, who owns Petrocco farms in Brighton, said his employees were doing their best to keep their masks on and stay socially distant. That wasn’t his main issue, though.

 “We are highly labor-intensive on what we produce. It is our main source of production, and we can’t find local labor — been this way since 2003,” said Petrocco.

Petrocco said his farm relies on the H-2A program, a government agricultural visa program that helps farmers legally hire temporary migrant workers to work on the farms.

“We are paying them $14.26, then we add housing, taxes and visas and transportation. So you are paying $ 17 an hour,” Petrocco said. “The local people are getting $14.26. The fieldwork has become obsolete. The people in the country moved away from the fieldwork. That’s where we are with labor.”

Gardner said Congress sent a letter to the program earlier this year. He and fellow Sens. Tom Tillis and David Perdue had been talking with other agricultural states’ senators before coronavirus struck.

“Overall, we have been pushing it with the White House on H-2A. It’s creating all kinds of challenges for us. They did make some changes and we felt like were making good progress. But with COVID, they could not proceed,” Gardner said.

Gardner said the Senate will get back to the conversation about a House bill dealing with the visa program.

“We are working with Sen. Diane Feinstein and Sen. Tom Tillis on a proposal. We need to address this, and those conversations are going well. I know the adverse wage is a big issue,” said Gardner.

The last five years of labor has been a big issue for the Hoffman farm. This year hasn’t been different.

“I cannot go a day without someone looking for a job. Where were these people the last few years? We work with random people just stopping in and put together a crew this year. Labor has been less of a concern, sales have been more of a concern. The USDA stepped up help us,” said Hoffman.

“I see plenty of those grants still going out, and there is plenty of money. It’s hard for us to compete with larger corporations. The diversity of production is important,” said Gardner.

“Supporting locals help us out,” said Sakata.

“If we eat we are connected to agriculture,” Petrocco said.

Gardner agreed.

“If we ever find ourselves in a position relying on other countries for our food, we are in big trouble. We have to produce our food here. We cannot be reliant on others during a pandemic,” said Gardner. 

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