Today's important COVID-19 news in the fresh produce sector

Corona-update: EU approves €1 billion aid for Greek farmers

As COVID-19 still holds the world in its grip, different regions are experiencing different problems. Very important for Greece has been the fact that the European Commission has approved €1 billion in aid for that nation’s farmers. In Spain, online food and drink shopping in Spain has soared 84% in two weeks. In the UK, Scottish potato production continues to thrive, but fresh market suppliers could face increased competition from the processing market.

In Australia, incredibly, Virgin Australia pilots are working in supermarkets and picking vegetables after losing their jobs just days into the Covid-19 lockdown. In Canada, the potato processing industry of Southern Alberta is now also in trouble, while in the US, three citrus industry groups have outlined the type of impact that COVID-19 is having on citrus.

This, and much more, in today’s Corona-virus update.

Online food and drink shopping in Spain soars 84% in two weeks
Spain’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has published its analysis of household consumption, noting “general Internet purchases are increasingly numerous in households,” with a clear growth of around 84 per cent in the last week of March and the first week of April.

Almost a quarter more fresh fruit was bought online, and more vegetables and potatoes were purchased, both fresh (up 31 per cent) and processed (up 31.6 per cent)

EU approves €1 billion aid to Greek farmers
After COVID-19 brought many Greek business sectors to a halt, the European Commission has approved an urgent aid measure of €1 billion ($1.09 billion) in repayable advances to companies in dire need. Meanwhile, farmers in Greece have been complaining about their products remaining idle due to the closing of the entire hospitality industry (hotels, restaurants and catering).

Farmers on Crete said supermarkets currently absorbs 30 percent of their production of fruits and vegetables with the rest being unsold since many eateries and other food services are closed, while their counterparts in the Ilia region of the Peloponnese have already discarded part of their fresh crop of strawberries and zucchinis due to limited demand.

Virgin Australia pilots to pick onions and stack shelves
Virgin Australia pilots are working in supermarkets and picking vegetables after losing their jobs just days into the Covid-19 lockdown. The airline sacked about 600 staff including about 200 pilots earlier this month.

Pilot Mike Kenyon lost his job on April 3, after flying for Virgin Australia for half of his 20-year career. "You sacrifice a lot on the way up in this industry. It's a real kick in the guts," the New Zealand Airline Pilots Association representative said. "One pilot, who got word of the redundancies was picking onions in the Hawkes Bay the next day. There's a fair few that have taken up supermarket roles."

The International Air Transport Association (Iata), which represents nearly 300 airlines, said New Zealand would lose nearly 130,000 jobs linked to the aviation industry after just three months of coronavirus travel restrictions. Supermarket companies Foodstuffs and Countdown had employed hundreds of workers since the lockdown began, many of whom were from the tourism industry.

Click here for some Virgin personnel expressing themselves

Southern Alberta potato processing industry in trouble
Alberta’s potato industry is now also part of the businesses being devastated by COVID-19. Southern Alberta’s big three potato processors Cavendish Farms, McCain Foods, and Lamb Weston have cut the total size of contracted acreage this spring by 20 to 25 per cent, due to plummeting french fry sales caused by mass restaurant closures across the region.

“Seventy five per cent of the french fry industry is QSR (quick service restaurants) in Western Canada, and that’s come to a screeching halt,” said Terrance Hochstein, executive director of the Alberta Potato Growers.

Citrus industry groups talk about COVID-19 damage
In a letter addressed to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, three citrus industry groups have outlined the type of impact that COVID-19 is having on citrus. California Citrus Mutual (CCM), Texas Citrus Mutual, and Florida Citrus Mutual provided insight on the damage created by coronavirus as decisions are being made as to how to disperse funding for relief aid for the agricultural sector.

Lemons appear to have taken the biggest hit since the beginning of the shelter in place orders, with losses in revenues for growers between $4 million to $5 million per week.  The closure of schools, restaurants and other retail outlets have also resulted in a dramatic decline in sales of grapefruit and grapefruit juice. The market has also become exceptionally volatile for other varieties of citrus. Although still early on, the projections for losses by the end of the season are in the $200 million range.

Scottish processors check out potato market
Scottish potato production continues to thrive in the current crisis, but with a collapse in the food service sector, fresh market suppliers could face increased competition from the processing market who are looking for a space on the shelves.

Fraser Malcolm of the Scottish Potato Cooperative said: “Four weeks ago, it went absolutely crazy. We were looking at double volumes for ten days to meet the huge surge in demand. However, orders have crashed dramatically since. The whole supply chain is starting to struggle as supermarkets can’t get enough vehicles; staff are going off in to isolation and there aren’t enough trays to get products on to the shop floor – not to mention people are more frightened of going to supermarkets amid the scare.”

He added that people are also likely to be more cautious about food waste and are living more frugally at this time - which he believes could be having an impact on demand.

US: Caltrans issues special permits for delivering emergency supplies
Caltrans has announced it will temporarily issue special permits for overweight trucks transporting emergency supplies in support of COVID-19 relief and prevention efforts.

According to Caltrans Director Toks Omishakin. “Emergency medical supplies and equipment, groceries, perishable items, water and countless other essential items will now reach their destinations more rapidly than they did before, at a time when people need them most.”

Caltrans will issue permits for overweight trucks on the State Highway System and will help support transportation operators in obtaining permits from local agencies for local roads. These permits increase the maximum allowable gross vehicle weight from 80,000 to 88,000 pounds and will be valid until further notice.

California agri community expresses gratitude to retail industry
California Secretary of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross has sent a message of thanks to retail industry for stepping up during country’s time of need.  

“Our California farmers, ranchers and farmworkers understand the challenge this crisis has delivered to our retailer partners: to manage adequate supply, maintain efficient distribution, and most of all provide a safe shopping environment for customers and employees. All of this has been accomplished with a level of care, service and dedication that makes us proud to be part of your supply chain,” stated Ross. 

The letter of gratitude recognizes the efforts of warehouse workers pulling double shifts, truck drivers adding routes, in-store employees, direct-to-consumer serves and retail managers. In addition, the letter offers a promise from the agriculture community to continue to provide nutritious food for retailers to serve the community.

Cambodia: Mango prices drop as crisis hits peak season sales
The Agriculture Ministry has instructed local farmers and producers to rethink their mango supply chains, as coronavirus-related economic disruptions have sent the price of the fruit plummeting during peak season.

Mango prices dropped by 60 percent from last year due to reduced orders for export as consumer spending has nosedived amid the Covid-19 pandemic, pushing some mango-processing businesses to temporarily suspend operations, the ministry said in a directive on Friday.

To withstand the fall in prices, the ministry ordered provincial and local authorities to work with the private sector and development partners to chart out a production plan, suggesting that stakeholders help connect farmers to new markets or train them to produce higher-value products, like dried mango or syrup.

India: Vegetable supply in Gujarat plummets due to closure of six markets
A day after the state government announced the closure of six Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) in Gujarat due to concerns surrounding the lack of social distancing, the supply  of vegetables saw a 30 per cent decline on Tuesday. There are about 70 APMCs in Gujarat that deal in vegetables and fruits.

Only 7,000 tons of vegetables reached 68-odd markets in Gujarat, while earlier, during the lockdown, 10,000 tons of vegetables were supplied. Six APMCs at Jetalpur, Padra, Himmatnagar, Kapadvanj, Dholka and Kalol were closed on Monday. Meanwhile, the state government officials said that Jetalpur market that supplies vegetables to Ahmedabad will begin operations from Wednesday.

Robot-powered warehouses need to survive the pandemic
Inside a warehouse in Erith, on the outskirts of East London, more than a thousand robots glide across a vast steel and aluminum grid. Following individual routes, they whizz off, accelerating at rates rivaling those of a Ferrari. The robots’ claws grab the sides of a white plastic crate containing fruit, vegetables, cereal—any of 55,000 different items—and retracts it up into the robot’s belly.

This warehouse, or customer fulfillment center (CFC), as logistics pros call it, is one of the most sophisticated and automated on the planet, one that can handle many tens of thousands of orders a week. It belongs to Ocado, a pioneering British online grocer that is positioning itself as a white knight for the beleaguered grocery sector—and possibly other industries too—offering to help supermarket chains compete in an automated age.

Ocado’s robot-powered warehouses thrum with activity on ordinary days; since the coronavirus crisis erupted, they’ve been in roaring overdrive. The pandemic has given the company a chance to prove it can keep an online grocery business humming, even when its human workforce faces unprecedented strain. Yet at the same time, the crisis’s upending of daily life has threatened to knock Ocado off its growth trajectory, just when it seemed tantalisingly close to becoming a global force.

Tanzania Horticultural Association secures Ethiopian Airlines cargo plane
As major airlines all over the world ground their planes in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the Tanzania Horticultural Association, in partnership with the government, have secured an Ethiopian Airlines cargo plane to ship the commodity to global markets.

The maiden cargo plane loaded nearly 30 tonnes of high value fruits, vegetables and spices off to Belgium for delivery to various European markets bringing a sigh of relief to hundreds of local producers and exporters.

Kenyan farmers take new approach to sales during lockdown
Kenya’s farmers and produce dealers are looking to social media and farm-based sales to bridge the production and market gaps in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The farmers are hoping to curb postharvest losses for fresh produce and improve their ability to acquire key agricultural inputs like fertilizer during the outbreak, which has prompted the cessation of cross-country travels, hampering market access for smallholder farmers and roadside traders.

“Social media motivated me to start my business, as 80 percent of my customers have access to the internet,” Nancy Kwamboka, a mother of two and broadcast professional, told the Alliance for Science. “They place orders and I deliver. Before coronavirus, this idea was not refined. But as demand for home deliveries escalated, I stepped in to help my fellow mothers to access food.”

Kenya inks deal with Ethiopian Airlines to operate freighters
The Kenyan government has inked a deal with Ethiopian Airlines to operate passenger planes grounded due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) for shipment of cargo between the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA), Nairobi to Europe and Asia.

The deal allows Ethiopian Airlines to fly cargo using six of its passenger planes from Mombasa to Nairobi and Asia and Europe, posing a threat to the Kenya Airways (KQ) cargo business. Ethiopian Airlines is expected to ship fresh vegetables, fruits, flowers and meat which are currently scarce in Europe.

India: Maharashtra’s mango farmers go online
With the extension of the lockdown, Maharashtra’s farmers are trying to find new ways to reach consumers. This time, mango growers of the state are going online to tap consumers and directly sell the fruit to housing societies.

For this, Maharashtra State Agriculture Marketing Board (MSAMB) has decided to come to their rescue and provide a platform. Every year, MSAMB holds mango festivals throughout the season enabling consumers to directly purchase mangoes from farmers. Last year, Rs 18 crore worth business was achieved through such direct mango festivals.

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