Wash first, then sanitize to prevent COVID-19

Farms not immune to COVID-19 infection

Ron Smith, Editor

April 7, 2020

5 Min Read
Soap and water should be the first step to sanitize workspaces and tools following suspected contamination or as a routine cleaning practice. Disinfectants follow as needed.Ron Smith

Even though farms may be more isolated than businesses in town, they are still vulnerable to coronavirus infection.

Employees come in, deliveries come in, and farmers and others go out to pick up supplies and conduct business.

So, farmers and ranchers should develop a system to protect workspaces, tools, produce, and vehicles to limit potential for exposure.

Information from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicates that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 may remain viable on several types of surfaces for hours.

"Potential for transmission from surface to person remains a question," says Achyut Adhikari, assistant professor, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

"Spread of the COVID-19 virus occurs most frequently through close person-to-person contact — within about 6 feet — from either direct contact or respiratory droplets from coughs or sneezes," Adhikar says.

But he and Washington County, Tenn., Extension agent Adam Watson agree that taking precautions, especially if someone with symptoms or someone who may have been in contact with a person infected by the virus comes onto the farm.

"Following proper environmental and cleaning programs will limit survival of the COVID-19 virus on surfaces," Adhikar says.

That program must begin with thorough cleaning followed by disinfecting, Watson says.

"The same concerns exist on the farm that would exist in a home or business where an individual showing no symptoms could still be leaving germs behind for the next person," Watson says.

Clean first

Clean before disinfecting, he says.

"A very basic component of produce food safety is that 'clean' surfaces can only happen if you clean with a detergent or soap with physical action such as scrubbing, rinse completely with potable water and then apply a sanitizer as directed by the label. Sanitizers must contact the germs in order to kill them, and soiled surfaces prevent that contact."

Farm operations offer many surfaces and items for which basic practices of using soap, water and sanitizers will not be adequate, Watson says. Electronic equipment, for instance, may require special attention.

"In these cases, following the basic principle of removing surface dirt, oil, etc., is essential before a sanitizer can be effective. That may mean using a couple of sanitizing wipes, one to remove the dirt and grime and a second to sanitize the surface. Let me reiterate, sanitizers don’t work if soiling on a surface prevents contact between the sanitizer and the germ."

What should a farmer clean or disinfect?

A farm includes many places and items that may require disinfecting. "Sanitizing shared tools, equipment, etc., in addition to surfaces like doorknobs and light switches, would certainly be a good practice," Watson says. "If all the parties live under the same roof, we have less concern because of shared exposure, provided everyone follows basic social distancing and employs proper handwashing if they have to venture off the farm."

Adhikar recommends the following process.

1. Clean and sanitize all areas that could be touched.

2. Prioritize routine cleaning operations for frequently touched objects such as harvesting tools, packing containers, surfaces that contact food, produce storage refrigerators, lockers, doorknobs, trash cans and any frequently accessed areas.

3. Use a sanitizer registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in your cleaning and sanitizing practices and properly follow label instructions for concentration, application method and contact time.

4. For use in food or surfaces that contact food, always check label guidelines to see if the disinfectant is safe and recommended as a food-grade product.

How to clean surfaces:

1. First, clean dirty surfaces using a detergent or soap and water before disinfection.

2. For disinfection, diluted household bleach solutions and alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, as well as other common EPA-registered household disinfectants can be used against coronaviruses.

Adhikari says following manufacturer’s recommendations for application and proper ventilation is essential. The CDC bleach solution includes: 5 tablespoons (1/3 cup) of bleach per gallon of water, or 4 teaspoons of bleach per quart of water

Interaction with coronavirus

"Our concerns increase when multiple individuals from different households interact with the same equipment," Watson says. "Where possible, assigning equipment or tools to individuals may make sense in the short term to reduce the chance of cross contamination and to reduce the need for cleaning and sanitizing."

If someone expects an infected individual has been in a farm facility or home, Adhikari recommends these CDC guidelines for facilities.

1. Close off areas used by any ill people and wait as long as practical before cleaning and disinfecting. If possible, wait until 24 hours.

2. Cleaning personnel should wear disposable gloves and gowns for all cleaning tasks and discard the disposable items properly after completing the work. Then they should wash their hands. In cases where soap and water are not available, hand sanitizer with 60% to 95% alcohol may be used.

3. Soft, porous surfaces, like carpeted floor or rugs, should be cleaned first to remove visible contamination and then laundered with the warmest appropriate water setting. They should then be allowed to dry completely.

Using the proper product for the job also makes a difference.

"The basic supplies include potable water, soap or detergent, cleaning brushes, cloths or paper towels, and a sanitizer appropriate for the surface."

Read the label

Watson says sanitizing wipes can be great tools but might come with limitations. "Make sure to read and follow label directions. For instance, many sanitizing wipes readily available are not allowed on food contact surfaces unless operators follow with a potable water rinse.

"A sorting table for produce would require rinsing with potable water before placing produce on it if certain sanitizing wipes were used," he says.


Handwashing remains a crucial part of farm disease prevention.

"Producers may consider constructing a handwashing station if employees don’t have access to a standard sink," Watson says. "A quick internet search will yield resources from Cooperative Extension on how to construct an on-farm handwashing station. (Here's one https://bit.ly/2Rkm0Hh) A hand sanitizer is good to use but should not replace proper handwashing."

Product list

Watson and Adhikari say the EPA provides a good list of more than 300 sanitizers specifically recognized as killing the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The EPA site (https://bit.ly/3bYKNse) provides information on products and contact time required for efficacy.

"Currently, product availability may dictate the best product to use and you may have to do a little homework," Watson says. "Search the internet for full product label by its EPA registration number."

Regardless of the product, every operation needs to develop a process to determine what needs to be cleaned and sanitized, limit exposure by limiting traffic and farm access and cleaning equipment, surfaces and tools correctly.

Watson and Adhikari agree: Wash first, then sanitize. It's that simple.

About the Author(s)

Ron Smith

Editor, Farm Progress

Ron Smith has spent more than 30 years covering Sunbelt agriculture. Ron began his career in agricultural journalism as an Experiment Station and Extension editor at Clemson University, where he earned a Masters Degree in English in 1975. He served as associate editor for Southeast Farm Press from 1978 through 1989. In 1990, Smith helped launch Southern Turf Management Magazine and served as editor. He also helped launch two other regional Turf and Landscape publications and launched and edited Florida Grove and Vegetable Management for the Farm Press Group. Within two years of launch, the turf magazines were well-respected, award-winning publications. Ron has received numerous awards for writing and photography in both agriculture and landscape journalism. He is past president of The Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association and was chosen as the first media representative to the University of Georgia College of Agriculture Advisory Board. He was named Communicator of the Year for the Metropolitan Atlanta Agricultural Communicators Association. Smith also worked in public relations, specializing in media relations for agricultural companies. Ron lives with his wife Pat in Denton, Texas. They have two grown children, Stacey and Nick, and two grandsons, Aaron and Hunter.

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