Research Farms Continue Essential Services

With animals and crops to care for, the Iowa State University Research and Demonstration Farms staff acted quickly to ensure the continuation of care and research projects when COVID-19 struck the U.S. in March 2020.

An early concern was how to handle the workload with reduced staff, especially when some of their student workers returned home mid-March after Iowa State classes moved to a virtual format. Ben Drescher, director of the Animal Science Farms, says they typically have close to 100 student workers on the farms, but initially they were only able to retain 40.

Staff made adjustments to handle tasks this spring with a reduced labor force, and by this fall they had a total of 85 students back working at the farms.

Schedules were adjusted to minimize the number of employees at the farms at the same time, and personal protective equipment (PPE) was provided to all employees. Mike Fiscus, superintendent of the Ag Engineering and Agronomy Farm, says most tasks require staff to be present on the farm, but they do work from home when possible. Even though they’re down one full-time employee — five instead of six — he said they’ve been able to keep up with their usual field work.

“We have very experienced staff,” Fiscus says. “We’ll get things done and will make it work. We have the ability to complete field operations in quick order when needed.”

The Horticulture Research Station had their usual 6.5 fulltime employees, but only one intern this summer, instead of two or three. Several rest stations were set up around the research station for employees to take breaks, rather than in the main office building, says Nick Howell, Horticulture Research Station superintendent. The rest stations and other high-touch areas are sanitized first thing in the morning and throughout the day.

“I have a really good group of young people working for me,” Howell says. “Everyone is being really careful and understanding. We’re doing our best to keep each other safe.”

Regular disinfection of facilities and equipment takes place at all outlying research farms, says manager Tim Goode. And, common protocol is restricting vehicles to single operator use. Farm employees stick with the same vehicle throughout the day and disinfect it before and after use. Research and Demonstration Farms are usually host to a number of field days throughout the year, but in 2020 field days were either moved online or canceled.

Read more about virtual field days.