Without knocking, a novel virus entered the lives of Ghanaians – and others the world over – at the beginning of the year, just as farmers were getting ready to celebrate the end of harmattan and begin their crop production plans. Unlike other countries, the Ghana Government was proactive in leveraging available science to develop and implement policies that have so far, knock on wood, prevented Ghana from experiencing the devastating human tragedy seen elsewhere.
Although farmers and others in the food supply chain were excluded from the mandatory stay-in-place policy (lockdown), the risks of infection have caused many actors in the food supply chain to voluntarily curtail their activities. When market women from Accra or Kumasi do not go to Techiman or Mankesim to purchase food products, not only is this a direct loss to farmers, but the livelihoods of the market women, the drivers, the porters, and all who contribute to getting that food to consumers in markets in our cities.
Scientists rightly tell us that until there is a COVID-19 vaccine, it is prudent to reduce infections by enforcing social distancing. An alternative to social distancing is testing everyone, and isolating those who test positive. Unfortunately, this is too expensive, grossly impractical and utterly ineffective. Testing negative today does not mean you will not test positive tomorrow or the day after. Given this reality, people must assume they are susceptible to being infected, and everyone they encounter outside their immediate household is infected. When we live by this assumption, social distancing is not an imposition by the government, it is self-preservation and common sense.
The question arising in farming communities is how crop production is going to be done this year given COVID. First, farmers are not included in the mandatory lockdown policy. So, that is not where the problem is. The problem is getting workers to help with land preparation and planting, while ensuring their safety as well as the farmer’s.
The recommended safe distance is six feet (two meters). Farmers planning on using non-family members for labor this planting season need to have this in mind for their own safety and that of their workers. They should start with identifying how many workers they need based on their land area. Next, they should rethink how they organize their hired labor to prepare the land and plant seeds with safety from COVID in mind.
When weeding, farmers may place workers at least six feet from each other, and instruct them to move in a single direction, maintaining six feet between each other at all times. That means, they should weed from right to left (only because most people are right-handed) and move forward in a way that ensures they are six feet from each other at all times. In large plots, it may be more effective to organize the workers into small groups of two or three and assign them a plot area to work in ways that maintains their six feet separation. Once they get to the point where they have less area to clear than can accommodate more than one person with six feet separation, all workers but one leave, and the last worker finishes the remaining area. The same approach is used when seeding. Usually, someone is making holes, and another is putting the seeds or plantlet in them. Using the six feet separation rule, the person making holes starts ahead of the person seeding, and maintains at least six feet distance from each other.
When it comes to refreshments, each worker should be provided their own water in any format practical for the farmer hiring them. The important thing to think about is ensuring people are not sharing cups or touching the same containers. The farmer should provide a hand washing station, with soap and water and paper napkins for workers to wash and dry their hands. Meals should be served and placed such that there is no contact between the server and the recipient. And people may eat together, as long as they are sitting at least six feet from each other.
The suggested processes challenge our normal communal encounters, but these are not normal times. Staying healthy and alive allows us to return to our normal lives later. Granted, doing these will increase labor cost, but this will be less than the cost of one or more workers falling sick. Let us call it the cost of self-preservation.
We recommend using this approach throughout the season, from weeding and fertilizing, through to harvesting. Once a vaccine has been found and community members have been vaccinated, life can return to normal. The good news is farmers will know when to return to normal when they have been vaccinated. At that time, they can confirm people they are hiring have also been vaccinated, and use this to complete their hiring to minimize potential seed of the but risks.
The foregoing is what farmers can do to protect themselves, their workers, and their community. What can the government do? With the major seed distributors in cities under lockdown, government should ensure adequate seeds are available at seed centers around the country. Additionally, fertilisers and chemicals, cutlasses and hoes, and others inputs must be made available as close as possible to farmers, and in so reducing travel-related risks. Extension services may use local radio to provide information on crop production during this COVID period. Without knowing when a vaccine will be available, government must start planning and putting resources aside to purchase not only grains, but roots, fruits and vegetables that are produced this year in case lockdowns are still in force when these crops are harvested. This could provide the opportunity to invest in effective storage and processing facilities to ensure the viability of farmers during the unfolding hard times, and into the future.
COVID is going to change how we farm in one form or another. The primary focus now should be on life and its preservation through minimizing infection risk. The ideas presented here are aimed at contributing to this primary objective. They are the first steps towards ensuring COVID does not limit Ghanaian farmers’ continued contributions to the country’s food security and the wellbeing of its rural communities.
 Janet A.Y. Tiah is a Research Associate at USAID-METSS, and Vincent Amanor-Boadu is an agribusiness economics and management professor at Kansas State University and principal investigator of USAID-METSS.
Disclaimer: The institutions we work for do not necessarily share the opinions expressed in this paper and the authors are wholly responsible for all errors and omissions.