Audrey Comerford loads a box of masks into Ethan Smith's pickup. Smith was picking up masks for B&D Farms, of St. Paul. Oregon State University extension employees and the Oregon National Guard distributed masks and hand sanitizer to farmworkers and agricultural producers on Wednesday, May 27 at the Oregon State Fairgrounds. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

When Alexis Taylor arrived at the Oregon state fairgrounds at 8 a.m. Wednesday, May 27, there was already a line of pickup trucks waiting.

Taylor, the director of Oregon’s Department of Agriculture, was there to help pass out thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and masks to farmers, ranchers and labor contractors. The giveaway didn’t start for another hour, but Taylor said the early crowd was no surprise.

“Farmers and ranchers are early risers,” she said.

This week, the department is passing out 5,000 gallons of hand sanitizer and nearly one million KN95 masks to agricultural employers and contractors around Oregon free of charge.

The goal is to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among workers as Oregon’s farm season kicks into high gear.

“We had this resource. We thought it was important to get it out the door very quickly,” Taylor said.

Farmworkers are among the groups public health officials have identified as being especially vulnerable to COVID-19 because they often live and work in close quarters.

In late April, Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration put out new rules intended to limit the spread of the virus among agricultural workers by mandating increased distance between workers in employer-provided housing and transportation, as well as on the job.

Those rules go into effect June 1.

Workers and volunteers with Oregon State University’s extension office and the Oregon National Guard handed out about 130,000 masks in Marion County and 40,000 in Polk County, department spokeswoman Andrea Cantu-Schomus said.

Sharon Frey, who owns Frey’s Dahlias, a nursery in Turner, was among dozens of people waiting for supplies early Wednesday.

Like many agricultural employers, she said she’s had trouble tracking down needed protective equipment for her workers, who number around a dozen during her busy season.

“You’ve got to look and look and look. Farmers don’t have time right now,” she said.

This week, employers were limited to 10 masks per employee, a target set to keep supplies from running out.

Taylor said the department is working with farmworker community organizations to get more supplies out, and is working on plans for distributing more protective equipment later in the season.

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Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.