By Michael Anderson, USW Assistant Director, West Coast Office
The uncertain nature of COVID-19 and the unprecedented changes it brought to how we live our lives has made every industry stop and consider how it can meet customer demands while protecting the health of its employees. While the novelty of the virus may have worn off, its presence has become a fact of life.
As the pandemic continues, the U.S. wheat supply chain is still working hard to meet the needs of customers, ensuring that the U.S. wheat store stays open. One crucial link in that chain is the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Marketing Service. The work of FGIS is valued by overseas wheat buyers because they are assured that an independent agency has certified shipments to meet the weight and quality requirements specified in the sales contract.
“Our system of standardized, independent grain inspection makes U.S. wheat more valuable,” said USW Chairman Darren Padget, a wheat farmer from Grass Valley, OR. “The proof of that came this year when many of our overseas buyers expressed a real concern that the pandemic would interrupt federal grain inspection and our supply chain.”
U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) recently spoke with FGIS about the measures the agency is taking to protect the integrity of the work and its essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Following are the answers provided by an agency spokesperson:
USW: How has the pandemic affected how FGIS manages its team of inspectors?
FGIS: “Within the Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) we’ve conducted over 100 staffing actions in the past year (either new hires or promotions into new positions). The increase in hiring actions is a result of both the pandemic and an increase in inspections overall. We developed virtual onboarding so staff could be trained quickly and remotely. Our national network of field offices allows us to send additional staff on detail assignments to busy offices during the natural ebb and flow of the harvests and export patterns. We do this on a limited basis in any given season. When the COVID national emergency started we expanded that practice and set up an active list of interested personnel should a need arise somewhere. However, we have not had any shortages due to the COVID-19 pandemic and that list has not been needed.”
USW: It cannot be easy keeping people socially distanced, when you think about the nature of exporting, transfer of samples/people in and out of facilities that are open around the clock. Yet, you have done that – any special steps that you have taken there?
FGIS: “Exporters have been essential in helping us ensure that FGIS on-site labs and common areas are clean and set up for social distancing. Most of our laboratories allow for social distancing and masks are required when that is not possible. USDA has ensured that all staff have access to cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. In fact, our labs at AMS made hand sanitizer and masks for fellow employees this past spring when national supplies ran tight.”
USW: The U.S. government declared workers in the food industry and specifically agricultural workers essential in March 2020 to ensure the food supply chain would not be disrupted. Like a lot of essential industries, FGIS inspectors and staff must be taking extra precautions to stay healthy and avoid the risk of quarantine. Any special instructions that have been provided to them, or directives in terms of helping to keep them healthy?
FGIS: “We follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We also mandate that employees clean their work-spaces after each shift, and do not enter any vessel offices while conducting stowage exams on ships.”
USW: Looking ahead, what can buyers of U.S. wheat and other commodities expect?
FGIS: “Our goal is to provide service safely, without interruption. We know the U.S. grain supply is essential to providing nutritious food around the world and we are proud of the role we play to keep those products moving with accurate and timely grades and weights for grain exports. FGIS has had no interruptions since the national emergency began and none are planned. We will continue to take actions to ensure inspection and weighing service can be provided safely, and we will continue to adapt and adjust to meet the needs of our customers.”
Through the committed efforts that extend from the farm to the FGIS inspectors and export elevator staff, wheat grown in the United States continues to flow to importing customers to continue feeding people around the world.