Feeding America is a tough job, but U.S. farmers, ranchers, orchardists, dairy operators and food processors rise to the occasion every day. Together, they produce plenty of affordable food for the nation’s 328 million people, plus plenty left over to help feed the rest of the world.

But when COVID-19 showed up last winter, our exceedingly complex food system got even more challenging. Deemed an essential industry, all sectors of agriculture had to make sure plenty of food was produced — while dealing with a pandemic that threatened the health of their employees.

The results of their efforts can be seen in the nation’s 38,307 grocery stores, where any shortages have been few and temporary and customers can still find every type of fresh, frozen and shelf-stable food. A typical grocery store carries 40,000 to 50,000 items.

It’s not been easy, and the learning curve has been steep for everyone trying to deal with COVID-19, the coronavirus that is easily spread where people are in close quarters.

In the orchards, cherry harvest has continued, and other tree fruits and berries are ripening while farmers take precautions to limit the possibility of spreading the virus. Masks, hand-washing and other facilities help stop the spread of the virus.

Harvest of other crops is continuing as well, with farmers and ranchers doing their best to keep workers healthy and safe.

The Northwest’s 150 food processors have developed best practices for coping with COVID-19, often with the help of state agencies such as the departments of agriculture. Working together, they have been able to minimize the spread of the virus.

They have spread out work stations and installed partitions, staggered break times, tested for the virus and checked temperatures to prevent possible contamination as workers sort and pack fruits, butcher cattle, hogs and chickens and pack vegetables.

A major challenge for everyone in ag has been educating employees to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when they are off work. Trying to prevent the spread of a disease that doesn’t even show symptoms in many is impossible. Worse yet is the fact it is fatal for a few who contract it.

The bottom line is that agriculture has been doing the heavy lifting during this pandemic. No one involved in growing, harvesting or processing crops can work from home. No one in agriculture can have a “Zoom” meeting and call it a day.

The miracle of modern agriculture requires plain old hard work — and lots of people. Nationwide more than 22 million people work in agriculture-related jobs.

Three times a day, we are thankful that they all are on the job.

That’s why agriculture is the most important industry in the world.

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