The world we live in has turned upside down in just a few short weeks and social distancing is also starting to have an impact on the continuity of produce supply and exports. This time of year, Sutherland, S.A. typically packs and ships grapes, kiwi and stone fruit out of South America, citrus out of California and apples from CA storage in Canada. These products make their way to Asia.
Stronger online sales
“There is very strong demand from Asia for grapes, kiwi, plums, stone fruit, citrus, and apples,” says Rick Chong with Sutherland, S.A. “Our larger customers overseas continue to operate and are experiencing stronger online sales as many consumers continue to self-isolate. Smaller clients are having to adapt to less face-to-face sales volumes, utilizing social media (Facebook mainly) to market and sell their produce.”
Photo: Tad Brusseau, Max Sutherland and Kim Hoang.
Packing sheds are closing
“However, due to the coronavirus crisis, many of our packing sheds have temporarily stopped operations.” As a result, the company has completely stopped shipping South American fruit until further notice. “For the areas that are still in operation, we will likely see a shortage of workers as some will want to self-isolate with their families,” said Chong. “The majority of our people have been placed on paid leave since March 15 until we feel it is safe to resume full operations.”
Alternatives for commercial air freight
Although demand from Asia is strong, will the product make it over there now that packing sheds are closing and transportation is becoming increasingly challenging? “Our Quality Control personnel are continuing to QC, pack or visit packing sheds, only as absolutely necessary. Ensuring they are following proper governmental recommendations for their own safety as well as others,” said Chong.
On the logistics side, there is a shortage of ocean containers in the US and air freight availability is almost non-existent. “The current shortage of air freight space may dampen future export sales in May if the coronavirus crisis continues,” Chong added. He referred to the California cherry season that is expected to start around May 1. The success of the state’s short season largely depends on exports to Asia. “Of course, we are always being proactive and continue to look at viable alternatives, such as renting air charters,” he mentioned. Chong likes to think out of the box and also considers the option of moving more cartage by sea on fast vessels as well as offering volume incentives to customers in countries where it is still easy to receive Sutherland’s fruit.