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

Corona-update: EU demand for Ukrainian workers prompts easing of travel bans

In this edition of the Corona-virus update, we see how the EU demand for Ukrainian workers is prompting eased travel bans. Turkey is launching a sprawling COVID-related probe, checking 29 companies for allegedly inflating prices during the pandemic.

In Wales, fruit and vegetable growers need support to help them deal with a dramatic increase in demand due to COVID-19, while from the US there is news that the pandemic has exposed the economic pressure of imports from Mexico.

In India, vegetable prices may begin to stabilise in Chennai in a few days, according to wholesale traders, as at Koyambedu market sales resumed from the early hours of Monday.

There is quite a lot of news from Africa, where the Angolan Quiminha Farms will not export as much potatoes and bananas as expected. Border closures are slowing the supply of inputs to Liberia and raising product prices for its farmers, while Rwanda has announced a comprehensive economic recovery plan.

EU demand for Ukrainian workers prompts easing of travel ban
As the season of fresh fruit, vegetables and berries appears on the horizon, farmers across Europe are facing one common problem: a lack of seasonal workers due to travel restrictions imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Before the pandemic forced countries to close their borders, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers from Ukraine, Romania, Moldova and Belarus were planting and picking fruit, vegetables and berries in neighbouring EU countries, where salaries are three to five times higher.

In Finland alone, local farmers need up to 20,000 seasonal workers annually to help with planting and harvesting, and more than half of them used to come from Ukraine. Although most of the European countries have closed their borders and banned passenger transportation to fight COVID-19, Ukrainian seasonal workers continue to receive working visas and move abroad for jobs that bring them more money than they can earn in Ukraine.

Moreover, despite higher risks of spreading the virus, foreign farmers encourage seasonal workers to get around the ban and governments hurry to ease it because a shortage of migrant workers means huge financial losses both for families and economies.

This year, the Finnish government has allowed only 1,500 foreign seasonal workers to enter the country, but 80% of them are Ukrainians, according to Paivi Maarit Laine, ambassador of the Republic of Finland to Ukraine. During the first month of the pandemic, around 175,000 Ukrainian seasonal workers left Poland.

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Wales: Growers of fresh produce feel the pressure of COVID-19
Fruit and vegetable growers in Wales need support to help them deal with a dramatic increase in demand due to COVID-19, a report says.

Dr. Hannah Pitt of Cardiff University worked on the research alongside experts at Food Sense, Food Foundation and Tyfu Cymru. A survey and a virtual summit were conducted with all edible horticulture producers in Wales to gauge how they are coping with the current challenges brought about by coronavirus.

Following the lockdown, many producers diverted from servicing catering outlets to providing home deliveries. Some say an initial spike in sales due to panic buying has continued with demand up a fifth on previous years. The findings show many of them are experiencing staffing shortages as they adapt their working practices. These pressures are expected to increase as the season progresses.

Several businesses surveyed were optimistic that current patterns of consumption may endure, resulting in continued high demand for Welsh produce.

Pandemic exposes economic pressure of imports from Mexico
As the Corona-virus crisis unfolds, Florida specialty crop growers were thrust into the spotlight as mainstream media covered stories of crops being plowed under as markets dried up. As hard a pill as it was for growers to swallow, there was at least some cause and effect to rationalize what happened.

But what growers could not stomach was the fact that Mexico product continued to flood across the border in the heart of Florida’s season. COVID-19 has clearly shown the importance of food grown at home, and growers hope the spotlight can move government officials to take action to protect domestic production.

Florida’s blueberry industry is the latest sector feeling pressure from Mexican imports, joining tomatoes, strawberries, bell peppers, and other crops in the state. From March 1 through April 2, the state’s growers had produced 6.1 million pounds of blueberries. In that same period, Mexico had imported 17.4 million pounds of blueberries into the U.S.

And those imports are growing by leaps and bounds every year. Take for instance the border crossing in Laredo, TX. Last year, 399 shipments of blueberries came into the U.S. from that crossing, according to the USDA’s Daily Movement Report. As of April 27, this year, that number had jumped to 646 trucks crossing.

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Turkey launches sprawling coronavirus-related probe
Nivea, Johnson & Johson and Carrefour are among the 29 companies that Turkey’s Competition Authority is investigating for allegedly inflating prices during the pandemic.

The entity announced that it has launched a probe into retailers and manufacturers of food and hygiene products to determine if they violated competition rules, particularly those related to excessive pricing, since the pandemic began. The authority has been actively monitoring these markets for the past month.

In late March, the authority warned that the covid-19 pandemic had led to companies introducing “extreme price increases in an opportunist manner” across the nationwide food market, particularly in the fresh fruit and vegetable sector. It said it would be closely monitoring prices and would impose the “heaviest administrative fines” that law allows on any company found to have violated competition rules.

India: New wholesale market in Thirumazhisai starts up
After a gap of nearly a week, wholesale vegetable trade resumed in the city at the new market set up in Thirumazhisai on Monday. Vegetable prices, which are high now, may begin to stabilise in Chennai in a few days, according to wholesale traders. The Koyambedu market, the earlier site of wholesale trade, was shut following a large number of COVID-19 cases being reported from there.

The market, which was inaugurated on Sunday evening, started receiving produce from different places, including Andhra Pradesh and sales began from the early hours of Monday. The area was bustling with activity as retail traders from neighbouring districts and the city’s peripheral areas arrived from 2 a.m. to pick up fresh produce.

Officials of the Koyambedu Market Management Committee said about 300 vehicles from various places have brought vegetables to the market since Sunday evening. Of the nearly 3,200 tonnes of vegetables that were sourced from different areas, nearly 2,600 tonnes were sold out by Monday morning.

COVID-19 forces Angolan Quiminha Farms to cancel potato and banana exports
Quiminha Farms, Angola, is one of the many farms all over the world that is feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The agricultural project, particularly in the first phase, was to export 8,000 tonnes of bananas and potatoes yearly. And based on the European market, the export would be increased.

Pedro Silveira, the deputy director-general, said that plans were on the way to tackle the bureaucratic issues. So, that wasn’t going to prevent export from taking place this year. However, postponement of the export (with no new date in sight), is now possible because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Silveira, the internal dealings for export to take place smoothly had already been taken care of. So, as soon as the global pandemic fades away, potato and banana export may likely start. He also went further to state that the company’s idea was to export, by air, the first batch of bananas and sweet potatoes, so long as the COVID-19 situation is under control.

The Quiminha Farm is the biggest agricultural project in Angola. It receives its water supply from the country’s biggest pumping center, which makes use of the Bango River. The Angolan Government created the project in 2012.

Saurashtra growers can't sell onions – government buys them and distributes them free
With no sale of onions since the lockdown, onion farmers in Saurashtra, the hub of onion farming, have been stuck with large quantities of onions since harvesting began a month ago

Even as onion farmers in Gujarat are worried about the huge stock of onions lying in their fields, the Congress has come to their rescue by buying a huge quantity of the onions and distributing it for free among the poor. With no sale of onions since the lockdown, onion farmers in Saurashtra, the hub of onion farming, have been stuck with large quantities of onions since harvesting began a month ago. They are afraid the stocks will start rotting if there is no government intervention.

Pandemic disrupts Liberian veg production and supply networks
When president George Weah declared a national state of emergency on 8 April and banned travel between counties, he granted an exemption for activities relating to the production, marketing and distribution of food. Yet, restrictions on movement are disrupting agricultural businesses, from input retailers to farmers and traders.

Border closures are slowing the supply of inputs to Liberia and raising product prices for farmers.  Thompson Kpakilah, a trader, supplies inputs to farmers in three counties and takes their produce, from cabbage to watermelon and cucumber to tomatoes, to market in Monrovia once it has been harvested. “The cost of fertiliser is going up,” he says. “Goods are not easily crossing [the border], so we are using what is here now, and sellers have brought the price up.”

Farming days are cut short by the daily curfew while a scarcity of vehicles means produce is kept waiting at farms post-harvest. While most Liberians are subject to a “stay-at-home” order, citizens who are permitted to continue their business activities must adhere to a 3pm curfew, which is affecting farmer’s ability to operate.

The farmers’ difficulties are by no means over once a vehicle has been found to take their produce to market. Transportation costs – for both goods and people – have increased in the past month, in part due to a social distancing directive which limits the number of passengers permitted in a commercial taxi from six to three. Fares have in some cases doubled as a result.

Rwandan plans to shield farmers from effects COVID-19
Rwanda has announced a comprehensive economic recovery plan and its implementation starts May up to the end of December in the first phase (2020). This plan includes two-parts, first part consists of; Monetary Policy, Fiscal Policy and interventions in specific sectors such as Agriculture, support to Private sector, Infrastructure projects for growth and jobs, Technology and Innovation plus Mining.

The second part is Social Protection Relief and Recovery Plan to COVID19 (SP-RRP). It aims at fixing the negative effects on the vulnerability of rural and urban households by providing a packaged approach addressing different needs related to the #COVID-19 crisis.

As the country reopens back to normal, with some anti COVID-19 measures still in place until September, government has come up with a plan to help the economy return on its feet. This recovery plan aims at guiding the government on required key interventions across different sectors that would provide support to households and boost employment and growth towards recovery.

“As we adopt the recovery plan, we want to address issues of social protection, agriculture. We need to improve productivity, and food security,” said Uzziel Ndagijimana-Minister for Finance and Economic Planning.

Zimbabwe’s plans to beat the crisis
The hottest issue among stakeholders in various sectors of the economy is how they will relaunch their businesses and get back to viable ways in the wake of the pandemic, that has literally brought everything to a halt.

Of course, all eyes will be on what the government will offer, especially after President Mnangagwa announced the $18 billion bailout package for industry. But for the aid to be effective, it will also take the effort and commitment of the beneficiaries to anchor their revival bid on what remained of their companies after the COVID-19 disaster.

The horticulture sector took the hardest hits, as most of the produce is supposed to be marketed fresh and at a particular stage of maturity. The lockdown announced by government effectively meant that no transport was available to ferry produce to the markets, hence producers found themselves stuck with produce.

While markets were the first to visibly suffer from the effects of the lockdown, there are agro-dealer shops that were also shut down and may not be operational, yet may have re-opened, but not to capacity, which brings in loads of uncertainty on the availability of their products when the country finally starts to operate effectively.

Recovery of the markets will certainly take place at a very slow pace, which also translates into a slow in the levels of production. It is encouraging to note that in terms of labour, the majority of farmers were not affected, as extra labour was actually made available by the disaster.

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