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Arkansas National Guard assisting farmers during coronavirus crisis

Arkansas National Guard assisting farmers during coronavirus crisis

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LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas National Guard is encouraging unemployed National Guard soldiers and airmen, veterans, students and anyone needing employment to assist Arkansas farmers during COVID-19. The duration of the work is' immediately through two to six months. White County is one of the counties included.

Lt. Col. Brian Mason, State Public Affairs Officer for the Arkansas National Guard, said in a release to The Daily Citizen that 'the COVID-19 Pandemic is more than just a health-crisis. It is currently impacting Arkansas' Agriculture, the Arkansas Farm Bureau and other state and federal agencies are requesting Arkansan's help. This is a must-fill the void left by non-existent H2A [migrant] workers. Pay is up to $20 per hour based on experience, as well as possible housing and meals may be available.'

Mason said as far as skills and abilities needed for the work, 'a person must have the ability to drive tractor or sprayer, connecting implements, load seed/chemicals [50-75] bags, basic mechanic skills, ability to move-irrigation equipment, pruning, watering, possess driver's license, ability to work with animals, fence repair, brush clearing and other general labor.'

Persons interested may sign up on the Farm Corps Facebook page, ArkansasFarmCorps.

Videos about the program are also available on the page along with other information.

Shawn Peebles is an organic vegetable farmer. He said they have farms in White, Woodruff and Praire counties, 'We raise sweet potatoes, green beans,edamame and hemp,' Peebles said. 'we farm about 2,700 acres, all certified organic. We also have a 80,000 square food processing plant in Augusta, where we process and ship to Cosco, Walmart and Kroger, those types of people. I started out farming here about 13 years ago and Searcy was the only place I farmed. We just expanded to the other counties over the years.'

As far as the Arkansas National Guard reaching out to help farmers, Peebles said 'it's a good program if it works.' For the past week, Peebles said he has spent most of his mornings on the phone with the secretary of agriculture and under secretary Cynthia Edwards. 'Apparently the Arkansas health department contacted the Ag Dept last week and said 'hey, we have no guidelines for H2A [migrant workers] labor that is entering into Arkansas, we've got to have some.'

Peebles says he has 50 H2A visas that come from Mexico and two that come from South Africa. 'South Africa is where we get skilled labor from,' Peebles said. 'The reason South Africa is because they are used to our modern equipment. They are used to new John Deere equipment and the Mexican labor is not. I lost both my visa from South Africa, not because the visa program was shut down. They shut down air traffic out of South Africa.

Number one is I got two guys picked out who were coming. I offered them the job, they were coming.

They accepted the job and the way the federal government is looking at that is 'okay you got to accept them now and it doesn't matter if they come a week before they are suppose to leave.'

'I'm going to get everyone of the them I had from Mexico last year. I had to make some concessions as far as the federal and the state government is concerned. What we had to do was, only people that are coming back to Arkansas or I guess the United States, are the ones that we had here in the last 12 months. I try to break my crew up every year and I put 10 or 12 new guys on. I don't want the same ones every year because it kind of starts to cause a problem. I had to kick the 12 guys off who were new and go back and get 12 guys I had last year and put them back on and they have already been approved. I got an email yesterday saying that they got approved.

We have an arrival date right now for McCrory, Arkansas for the fifth day of May. I have no reason to believe they will not be here.'

The problem is not with Mexican labor, Peebles said. 'If you are a first time H2A participant, you're already kicked out, they're not going to let you partici-

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pate this year.'

Protocols have been put in place, Peebles explained. 'We are chartering our own buses.

We're picking them [the Mexican workers] up from their own towns, directly from their homes. They will have no outside contact with the world. These of course are Greyhound buses that we are chartering so they have a bathroom on them. They will not get off the bus when stops are made for fuel. When the bus driver picks them up, he is going to take their temperatures and screen them. When they get to my housing facility and I use a home hospital. I rent the Woodruff County Hospital from the county. I am going to quarantine them there for 14 days.'

The health department told Peebles he had to have a plan if a worker was to become ill.

'We came up with a standardized plan that we wrote down to explain to them that we would be moving him [if a worker became ill] to another end of the facility, where he has his own room, his own bathroom and no contact with the others.'

Most farms today are not using manual labor are getting South African labor, Peebles said because they are very skilled workers and there is no language barrier because they speak perfect English.

'Until that air traffic opens up, the guys can't come even though they were approved.'

Peebles said he is interested in the National Guard's efforts to assist Arkansas farmers because he needs skilled labor. 'One of my guys from South Africa is named 'Corn' and he is a farm manager for 13 years. This is the type of people we are going to be looking for. It's going to bee hard to find that but I do believe the [National Guard's] program as far as looking for mechanics and skilled labor…I believe that labor should be there. I think there is huge potential for that program to work. I really do. Usually when people are coming out of a military environment, those people are very dedicated, very disciplined and I think they'll be very good at those jobs.'

With '6.6 million people unemployed,' Peebles said 'I have put out some ads and I have gotten lots of response but not a lot of skilled labor.'

Jason Smedley, assistant director, public affairs/government affairs for Farm Bureau Federation in Little Rock, told The Daily Citizen that Congressman Rick Crawford had some of his constituents reach out to him saying they needed workers for their farms. 'His office is kind of the one that initiated this effort,' Smedley said. 'So he looked at our military personnel, knowing that a lot of the reserve and the guardsmen are looking for employment so he was able to think of a way to combine the two needs. With that in mind he connected Farm Bureau and the National Guard to assist with this initiative called the Farmcorps.'

The guard and the reserve have been very eager to help, according to Smedley. They are now spreading the word about the FarmCorps and letting others know about the opportunity. Farmers are encouraged to go on the Arkansas FarmCorps Page to list their needs and times they would be needing workers for their farms.

'This is a unique effort,' Smedley said, 'but the focus is we have to make sure our farms stay running.

Agriculture is Arkansas' largest industry and we want to help keep in that way and part of that is to do our part to assist in helping these farmers in a time of need and it's also a way we can help our service members across the state with employment and giving them a chance to really play an active part in our Agriculture industry.'

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JONESBORO — Area school districts continue to face obstacles as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold on local, state, and international stages. During Monday night's special board meeting, Jonesboro Public Schools Superintendent Kim Wilbanks said education is rapidly changing. “We have done education the same way for hundreds and hundreds of years and in three weeks we have changed everything,” she said.

With all changes, there are some details that have to be worked out. All Jonesboro area school districts continue to find a way to educate students within the parameters of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The situation is further complicated by the fact a tornado hit Jonesboro on March 28 leaving many residents with no homes, let alone electricity or internet connections.

One major obstacle all school districts are facing is student participation. During Jonesboro Public Schools special board meeting Monday night,Wilbanks said student participation is an issue. Out of a class of twenty-five students, Wilbanks said she is hearing from her educators that around five students in each class are not turning in assignments.

Misty Doyle, the district's director of curriculum, said these are not unexpected obstacles. “Anytime we are in a situation where we are trying to do remote learning, we are always talking to teachers and there are always some discrepancies.

Doyle said the district is tackling issues and reaching out to families to assist with needs.

We have assigned special staff such as coaches, art teachers, and music teachers to pair up with grade level teachers to assist with the problem, she said. “They are helping to call parents, and are also doing home visits,” Doyle said.

Doyle said in some cases, as the pandemic and the tornado have impacted, they are discovering families have simply left to live with other family members out of the district for lack of financial resources.

At the same time we have discovered that there are families who have moved in to the district from other areas for the same reason, she said.

Doyle said with the current situation, she is encouraging educators to remain flexible at this time. Nettleton School District Curriculum Director Grace Peterson said Nettleton has also had issues with student participation.”We are having issues with students having access (to lessons), mostly due to the tornado,” Peterson said. “The teachers are reaching out in a variety of different ways.”

Peterson said parents have been made aware of apps that can be used on phones or other devices if home internet is not available.

“We are trying to follow up and make sure people have what they need, we realize a lot of people won't be able to access the information,” she said.

Westside Superintendent Scott Gauntt said his district is not putting a lot of pressure on families at this time, but students are participating in remote learning. “We have had some work turned in electronically and some on paper,” he said. Gauntt said as a precautionary measure, educators are waiting a certain amount of time before picking up the work.

Three boxes have been placed outside each of the schools where paper packets can be turned in. “We let those packets sit there for a week,”Gauntt said, noting this is to give any possible COVID-19 virus that may have been transferred to the packets time to die out. “We want to provide feedback on work, but not at the expense of putting teachers and staff at risk.”

Guantt said at this time the district is not against any sort of timeline.

Valley View is also facing similar obstacles, but Sara Osment, Curriculum Specialist, said the district is taking a multifaceted approach. “Going into this we knew student participation would be an issue,” Osment said. “We have to look at this from a lot of different angles.” Some factors are space, limited access to the internet, loss of focus from stress, and lack of devices are some of the factors taken into account.

“We have dealt with it on a case by case basis,” she said.

Technology surveys were sent out to see what devices and internet resources families had. “We went from there to see what we could do,” Osment said.

Educators are in constant contact with their students and are using a combination of paper packets and Google Classroom to continue education at this time. “We are taking a team approach the best we can to educate our students,” she said.

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