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

Corona-update: President Trump to unveil first phase of COVID-19 farm aid

As we speak, farm workers from Eastern Europe are being flown to the UK on charter flights to pick fruit and vegetable crops and German farms expect to have enough foreign workers, although the asparagus industry is not out of the woods yet. Belgium's potato industry is asking its government for financial aid, whereas France calls for urgent EU help.

In the US, president Trump will unveil $15.5 billion first phase of coronavirus farm aid amid reports that the combined North American potato acreage is expected to plummet. APM Terminals in North America is making storage space available for ocean carriers facing logistics logjams.

On a lighter note, produce suppliers at Sydney Markets are making sure the emergency staff at St Vincent's Hospital get their apple a day during the coronavirus crisis. Also, Transport Minister Mahinda Amaraweera has directed Sri Lanka Railways.

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

Eastern Europeans to be flown in to pick fruit and veg in UK
Farm workers from Eastern Europe are being flown to the UK on charter flights to pick fruit and vegetable crops. Air Charter Service has told the BBC that the first flight will land on Thursday in Stansted carrying 150 Romanian farm workers.

The firm told the BBC that the plane is the first of up to six set to operate between mid-April and the end of June. British farmers recently warned that crops could be left to rot in the field because of a shortage of seasonal workers from Eastern Europe. Travel restrictions due to the coronavirus lockdown have meant most workers have stayed at home.

An air charter company said it has arranged for a flight to bring up to 180 Eastern European farm workers to Stansted Airport in Essex on Thursday. It has been reported that up to five more flights are planned. The National Farmers’ Union has expressed concern about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on recruitment of workers to pick fruit and vegetables this summer.

German farms expected to have enough foreign workers
German farms are expected to have enough foreign workers to gather vegetable and fruit harvests this spring as thousands of crop pickers arrived following the relaxation of coronavirus travel restrictions, the German farming association DBV said on Wednesday.

The German government announced on April 2 it will allow 80,000 foreign workers into the country in April and May to help harvest fruit and vegetable crops, relaxing previous travel restrictions imposed to combat the new coronavirus.

Countries across the European Union, including Germany, have set up border controls to stem the spread of the virus, but with the side effect of preventing cross-border workers travelling to work.

Belgapom potato official appeals to government for help
Belgium's potato industry is asking for the government to help it survive the lockdown. While the country is well-known for its fries, the industry has few clients at home. On average, 90 per cent of potatoes are exported. But with travel bans and restaurants closed around the world, the food supply chain has been disrupted.

"This is the first time ever that the potato sector is asking for support to the government," admits Romain Cools, secretary general of Belgapom, the association representing the Belgian potato trade and processing industry.

He says the sector is facing so many difficulties due to EU legislation. He says tools to help in a crisis are not geared towards farmers. Piles of potatoes are now stuck on farms and many don't have the facilities to keep them fresh.

Trump to unveil $15.5 billion first phase of coronavirus farm aid
The U.S. Department of Agriculture will spend up to $15.5 billion in the initial phase of its plan to bolster the nation’s food supply chain against the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

The plan, which could be announced this week, marks the Trump administration’s first big push to ensure the pandemic doesn’t trigger consumer food shortages as meat packers shutter, dairy producers dump milk, and farmers struggle to find workers to harvest, plant and deliver crops.

The initial plan will include direct payments to farmers and ranchers, along with other support measures, using a portion of the $23.5 billion approved by Congress to support agriculture in a coronavirus stimulus bill last month, along with some existing USDA funds, according to the sources.

North American potato acreage expected to plummet
Although the situation is changing every day, the Canadian and US potato acreage could take a dramatic hit in 2020. Potato production may drop by 25 to 30 percent because of closed restaurants, a sharp decline in French fry consumption and the economic fallout from COVID-19.

“I would say across North America … the processors are going to ask us to seed between 70 and 75 percent (of normal),” said Terence Hochstein, executive director of Potato Growers of Alberta. “Some (regions) are more and some are less.”

The potential acreage cuts are for process potatoes, which are used to make French fries and other frozen potato products. Process potatoes represent the bulk of potato acres in Canada and the United States. Tens of thousands of restaurants are now closed in North America because of the risk of spreading the coronavirus. As a result, Canadians and Americans are eating fewer fries than usual.

“It doesn’t take a great scientist to figure it out. Once the sit-down portions of restaurants closed … then all you have left is drive thrus to (sell) french fries,” said Kevin MacIsaac, general manager of United Potato Growers of Canada.

UGA agricultural economist explains why US shelves are empty
While all industries have been seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, food and agriculture have been among the hardest hit segments of the U.S. economy. The primary reason lies in the composition of household food expenditures, said Gopi Munisamy, a professor of agricultural and applied economics in the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences

The impacts of the pandemic appear to vary by commodity based on two critical issues: perishability and labor use. Perishables like fruits, vegetables and milk are among the hardest hit. Many of these industries also depend on labor for growing and harvesting.
Click here for the full article.

France calls for urgent EU help for its farming industry
France’s Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume has multiplied calls for assistance from Brussels to deal with the effects of the ongoing health crisis. In other words, the milk, meat, fruit and vegetable sectors cannot wait much longer, EURACTIV France reports. Since the coronavirus crisis started, France has made several appeals to the European authorities for the implementation of urgent measures to support the agricultural sector. These European support mechanisms, provided for by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in the event of acute difficulties on agricultural markets, still have not been activated by the European Commission, despite repeated calls from France, other EU member states and the farming community.

APM Terminals offers storage space in North America
APM Terminals in North America is making storage space available for ocean carriers facing logistics logjams. A fee-based storage will be available in APM Terminals Pier 400 Los Angeles, California; APM Terminals Elizabeth, New Jersey; APM Terminals Mobile, Alabama; South Florida Container Terminal, Miami, Florida and APM Terminals Lazaro Cardenas in Mexico.

Sydney Markets donates fresh fruit to doctors battling COVID
Produce suppliers at Sydney Markets are making sure the emergency staff at St Vincent's Hospital get their apple a day during the coronavirus crisis.

MD Providores used to supply hundreds of restaurants, but enforced coronavirus closures have seen them branch out. The business is now undertaking home deliveries.

"We've been able to help communities, we've been able to keep our staff employed, so we're pulling a positive out of a negative," MD Providores' Mouhamad Dib told 9News.

But their last delivery of the day is probably their most important, as they help Sydney Markets supply fresh fruit to the emergency team at St Vincent's Hospital. "They reached out to us, and we thought it was a great idea," Sydney Markets CEO Brad Latham said. For the next six weeks at least, a truck will be pulling into the ED driveway on a regular basis, loaded with fresh Aussie fruit.

Trains to transport rural produce Sri Lanka
Yesterday, Transport Minister Mahinda Amaraweera directed Sri Lanka Railways to deploy special trains to transport vegetables and fruits from remote areas to other places in the country for ensuring availability of these products during the curfew imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

He added that attention has been paid by the Ministry regarding the problems that have arisen in transporting vegetables and fruits from cultivation areas to other parts of the country. Therefore, Minister Amaraweera advised the SLR officials to deploy trains to transport vegetables, fruits, grains, rice and other essential commodities cultivated in various parts of the country to other areas.

Canadian potato industry holds market update conference  
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic brought physical meetings to a standstill, the board of directors of United Potato Growers of Canada held a face-to-face meeting in Ottawa to review potato stocks and discuss the market situation across the country.

General Manager Kevin MacIsaac noted stocks nationally were down 1.9 per cent or one million hundredweight over the three-year-average as of March 1. However, the former chair of the PEI Potato Board noted Island holdings were up 3.9 per cent.

“Crop movement is up in Canada and the U.S. but down in export markets,” he noted. “Movement has picked up in the last few weeks with particularly good movement on large size profiles.

Pandemic limits Philippines’ banana supplies to importers
The coronavirus pandemic may limit supplies of bananas in Asia. Growers in the Philippines, the world’s second-biggest exporter, said overseas shipments may drop by nearly 40% this year as lockdowns and social distancing measures curb output and transport.

The country’s exports of the fruit are expected to plunge to about 2.5 million tons this year from 4 million last year, said Stephen Antig, executive director of the Pilipino Banana Growers and Exporters Association. Producers, including Unifrutti Tropical Philippines Inc., have halted some operations, he said.

Canada: Russet potato contracts cut
Sales of frozen French fries and other potato products are down as fast-food businesses and restaurants closed due to the pandemic. This means there will be fewer acres of Russets going into the ground in northern states this spring as processors cut back on their contracted acres in response to a reduction in sales of frozen French fries and other potato products.

The closure of fast-food businesses and restaurants last month has drastically curtailed the sales of frozen potato products in the United States and around the world. The food service industry businesses, like those in many other sectors of the economy, were closed in an effort to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Fiji: Concerns about exorbitant vegetable prices
Concerns continue to be raised on the exorbitant prices of vegetables after the COVID-19 lockdown and Tropical Cyclone Harold however market vendors say that they do not have any choice as they are buying the produce from farmers or third parties at higher prices compared to the past.

Some market vendors in Suva have told Fijivillage that the prices for vegetables has nearly doubled.

A vendor highlighted that as early as last month they used to get a sack of eggplants from Valley Road for about $30 but now it is costing close to $60. Another vendor also says the price of English Cabbage has significantly increased as they are now getting one kg of cabbage for about $40.

Andhra Pradesh growers happy as traders come to them
With traders coming to the fields to buy vegetables amidst the COVID-19 lockdown, the farmers from Andhra Pradesh are happy as they get cash immediately. Normally, they have to transport their produce to nearby markets for selling it to local traders. The district received good rainfall this season and majority of the farmers cultivated vegetables as secondary crop along with paddy and other horticulture crops. The farmers cultivated vegetables in around 2,782 hectares across the district.

Not only traders, but also donors, NGOs and political leaders, who distribute vegetables during lockdown, have been contacting the farmers directly for procuring their produce from fields.

The district imports carrot, capsicum, cabbage, cauliflower and other vegetables. Similarly, locally grown brinjal, leafy vegetables, lady finger, drumstick, cluster bean and plantain are exported to other parts of the state from Nellore.

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