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Cayuga County farms aim to prevent spread of COVID-19 after workers test positive

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Farmhands work in the milking parlor on Patterson Farms last month in Union Springs. 

Farms are considered essential businesses in New York. And like other essential employers operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, they aren't immune from the virus. 

In early April, three Cayuga County farmworkers tested positive for the coronavirus. One of the farmworkers, a man in his 40s, died — the first COVID-19 death reported in Cayuga County. 

Before the confirmed cases, farms took preventive measures to protect employees against the coronavirus. Following the positive tests, there has been increased communication between local farms and the Cayuga County Health Department. 

Kathleen Cuddy, Cayuga County's public health director, told The Citizen that the department created targeted messaging for the farm community. She provided a list that was sent to farms notifying them that there has been an increase in COVID-19 cases in Cayuga County, "especially in the farmworker community." 

The list includes recommendations to prevent the spread of the virus, including keeping workers home if they are sick, tracking people who enter the farm and designating work partners to limit exposure. The document also provides links to federal and state health agencies. The department also included a Cornell Cooperative Extension newsletter that contains COVID-19-related information. 

"Since the cases were confirmed on the farms, the health department has spoken directly to numerous farm owners to ensure their concerns were addressed and to be a resource for them," said Cuddy, who added that nurses from the health department went to some farms and tested "symptomatic people" for the coronavirus. 

For Cayuga County farms, having confirmed cases involving farmworkers "heightened our level of awareness," said Tim Fessenden, co-owner of Fessenden Dairy in King Ferry. 

Fessenden's farm already took precautions, including wearing gloves and masks, using hand sanitizer and practicing social distancing. Due to the nature of farm work, there isn't much more they can do to guard against the virus. 

"Unlike some businesses that can operate from home, that's a little challenging for a farm," Fessenden said. 

However, there is concern about several workers getting sick at a time. If workers have to be isolated or quarantined due to a positive test or exposure to someone with COVID-19, that could be devastating for farms. 

Fessenden explained that farms usually have 90% of the workforce they need on a normal day of operations. Ray Lockwood, president of the Cayuga County Farm Bureau and co-owner of Half Acre Dairy in Aurelius, echoed that farms lack additional help. If one or two workers are out sick, Lockwood said it would burden the rest of the workforce. 

That's especially true for dairy farms. Dr. Richard Stup, an agriculture workforce specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension, told The Citizen that with farms operating on narrow margins, they often do not have large staffs. 

"When employees go down with a sickness or they need to be quarantined because they've had contact with someone who's infected, that can have a major impact on farms right away," Stup said. 

While there is a large number of farmworkers who live and work locally, some come from other countries. There are different types of housing that could be available for these farmworkers, according to Stup. Houses could be divided into apartments, mobile homes could be provided or there could be barracks-style living quarters. 

It will be challenging, Stup explained, if farmworkers contract the virus and needed to be isolated. 

"They're just not set up for that," he said.

Everyone who spoke to The Citizen for this story agrees that education is important. The county health department urged farms to make sure that workers learn about COVID-19. They provided posters from the CDC that are available in English and Spanish. Stup said that because farmworkers aren't following the local news, they weren't immediately aware of COVID-19. Farms responded, he said, by providing language-appropriate materials. 

Like everyone else living through the COVID-19 pandemic, the goal for farms is the same: Stay healthy. 

"We've just tried to keep the workers as safe as possible," Lockwood said. "We cannot shut down operations and we cannot afford anybody sick, period, at any time of the year, particularly now." 

Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.

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Online producer and politics reporter

I have been The Citizen's online producer and politics reporter since December 2009. I'm the author of the Eye on NY blog and write the weekly Eye on NY column that appears every Sunday in the print edition of The Citizen and online at

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