December 2, 2021

NY unveils new effort to vaccinate growers, workers

Jamie L. Costa/staff reporter

Brett Morris, farm manager of Main Street Farms in Cortland, and field manager Paul Jensen prepare a greenhouse Wednesday in Solon for the season. The state announced a plan this week to vaccinate farmers and food-facility workers following complaints that they are essential workers.

Farmers lobbied for months when the state ruled they were not sufficiently essential workers to merit priority access to COVID-19 vaccines.

Now, the state will work to create pop-up vaccination clinics at farms and food-production facilities.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new effort to vaccinate workers at New York state farms and food production facilities Tuesday following farmer complaints that they and their employees are essential and in need of the vaccine.

“It is critical that workers have ongoing access to COVID-19 vaccines to ensure their health and safety as they do their work,” said Chris Kelder, state director of the New York Farm Bureau. “Access to vaccines has been the leading priority of New York Farm Bureau and farmers across the state.”

When Robert “Bobcat” Bonagura, co-owner of Main Street Farms, heard he and his employees weren’t eligible for the vaccine in January, he questioned the state Health Department, which told him farmers are not considered essential workers, he said.

“According to the state, they weren’t considering farmers eligible for Phase 1, but public-facing grocery store workers were,” Bonagura said. “I made the argument that we are public facing.”

Throughout the winter, Main Street Farms workers attend farmers markets in Cortland County and Tompkins County where employees interact with the public, Bonagura said.

Without access to the vaccine, an entire farm season could be ruined due to exposure, leading to food shortages, health concerns and farms going out of business.

In February, the state Health Department sent a letter to all market vendors saying they were eligible, Bonagura said. He got his vaccine in March and almost all of his eight-person full-time crew is vaccinated.

“I think it’s silly we had to jump through so many hoops to get the vaccine when I feel like food is essential,” Bonagura said. “I think it’s kind of unfair that a lot of farmers didn’t get the vaccine.”

Still, he gives credit to the Health Department for dealing with the pandemic the way it has.

“I can’t be too mad at them, they’re doing the best they can,” Bonagura said. “There are only so many shots to go around and they had to choose a handful of groups and farmers were not one of them.”