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

Corona-update: Wisconsin potato growers not as hard a hit as their western counterparts

In today’s brief update, we are looking at the situation regarding potato growers in Wisconsin, who seem to be less hard hit by COVID-19 than their western counterparts. Also in the US, Americans paid 2.6% more at the store in April than in March, while in Florida, watermelon growers are adapting to what they call ‘the new normal’.

In India, shops selling essential items will reopen in Ahmedabad, and unfortunately, litchi growers in Punjab are facing huge losses. In Japan, a home delivery service of irregular fruits has become a huge success, while Thai durian growers acknowledge that COVID-19 hasn't dampened Asia's huge appetite for durians.

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

Wisconsin potato growers not completely done in by COVID-19
While many potato growers across the nation are being forced to mash their spuds into the ground, Wisconsin's spud producers aren't feeling as hard a hit from COVID-19 as their western counterparts.

In big western potato producing states like Idaho, Washington and Oregon where the growing season is a month or two ahead of Wisconsin, some growers had to make the difficult decision to disc some fields of potatoes under.

A vast majority of their potato production goes to the processing food sector that supplies potato products to schools, restaurants and hotels. When the coronavirus shut those places down, that sector of the potato industry "basically fell off a cliff," explained Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the  Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association.

About 20% of Wisconsin's potato production goes to McCain Foods to be made into French fries, hash browns and tater tots for the frozen processing food sector which was hardest hit in the pandemic. Wisconsin contracts for that processing sector were cut 25%, Houlihan said, but with the reduction affecting less than a quarter of the state's total potato industry, the impact was only about a 5% loss on the state's entire industry.

A large sector of Wisconsin potatoes goes to its chipping production where the spuds are turned into potato chips — a sector of the potato industry that is doing well right now, Houlihan said. About 25% of Wisconsin's potato product is for chips with the state being one of the largest potato suppliers in the nation to Frito Lay.

April saw biggest jump in US grocery prices in nearly 50 years
Anyone who went grocery shopping last month likely felt a little more sticker shock than usual, and for good reason. Grocery prices jumped in April, the highest single-month increase the country has seen since 1974, according to the U.S. Consumer Price Index..

Americans paid 2.6% more at the store in April than in March, according to the index, which is released monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The price increases come as the coronavirus pandemic lingers across the United States, with many people still adhering to stay-at-home orders.

While groceries were more costly, prices fell for a host of other goods and services, according to the index.

“We saw an immediate, drastic decrease in expenditures away from home and an increase in the expenditures that we made at the grocery store,” said David Ortega, a food economist at Michigan State University stated.

Florida watermelon grower prepares for ‘the new normal’
For many Florida growers, concerns have been mounting during the coronavirus pandemic: How do they move their crop? Will they have workers to harvest the food as the U.S. clamps down on movement? And how long can farmers go on?

“Every farmer in the area — every farmer is affected," said John W. McKenzie, who runs a watermelon farm in Sumter County called M&J Farms of Lady Lake Inc. McKenzie calls himself "small time," with three fields of watermelons totaling about 125 acres; he boasts half a million in annual sales. Yet the pandemic has made his life quite challenging.

“Everything affects price. Price gets too cheap, we can’t afford to pick it. And if we can’t afford to pick it, it’s over," he said. “If there’s no movement, there’s no work. If there’s no work, there’s no jobs, no money. And that’s the bottom line.”

McKenzie sells everything through a broker, who sells to everyone. About 70 percent of the watermelons go to chain stores such as Whole Foods or Publix, while 30 percent head to restaurants and schools, he said.

McKenzie also worries whether he'll get the guest workers he needs to harvest this month. “We don’t know if we’ll be able to get as many as we have in the past. But at least we’ll get in the queue," he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be back to normal as we know it, (but) then we need to come up with a new normal," he said.

India: Essential shops to reopen on May 15 in Ahmedabad
Shops selling essential items will reopen from May 15 on certain conditions in Ahmedabad, which has been under a complete lockdown since May 7, the state government said on Tuesday.

Civic authorities had on May 6 ordered the complete closure of all shops in the city, except those selling milk and medicines, for a week from May 7 in a bid to check the spread of the Corona-virus.

In a release, Additional Chief Secretary Rajiv Gupta, who is overseeing works related to COVID-19 in Ahmedabad, said shops selling essential items such as grocery, vegetables and fruits, will be allowed to remain open between 8 am and 3 pm from May 15 provided they follow certain conditions.

Punjab litchi growers face losses amid lockdown
Litchi growers in Punjab are facing huge losses as they are yet to be approached by contractors for their orchards amid a prolonged countrywide lockdown. In the past, contractors - mostly from outside states, including Uttar Pradesh - used to visit Punjab to take litchi orchards on lease, besides reserving them by paying advances to farmers.

Last year too, litchi growers had suffered huge losses in Punjab, as many videos surfaced on social media, linking the fruit to acute encephalitis syndrome (AES). At that time, farmers reeled under losses as the litchi prices dropped very much.

In Punjab, mainly two varieties of  litchis -Dehradun and Calcutta- are grown by nearly 1,100 farmers in few districts, including Pathankot, Gurdaspur, Hoshiarpur and Ropar, covering nearly 3,000 acres of lands. Around 48 trees are grown in one acres and each tree yields approximately 50 to 100 kg of litchi according to their age.

Deliveries of substandard fruit prove a hit in Japan
A home delivery service of irregularly shaped fruits has become a huge success following its launch late last month by a company seeking to make up for lost business at its sightseeing orchard in north-eastern Japan amid the pandemic.

Yamagata Sakuranbo Farm Co., which normally sells the substandard fruits only at its store, put the promotion online in a bid to avoid having to dump some 120 tons of products such as cherries and peaches as social-distancing measures kept visitors away.

Its offer of seven deliveries over a period of six months, totaling 40 kilograms of fruit, for 28,567 yen ($260) drew a strong response, selling out the excess fruit in just two weeks.

"I didn't expect a huge sell like this," said Yoshitomo Yahagi, the 44-year-old president of the company. "I hope farmers across the country will take note of this. An employee added: “We can turn a crisis into a chance. We hope that people will visit our place when the (coronavirus) crisis is under control.”

COVID-19 hasn't dampened Asia's huge appetite for durians
Eddy Nattapong Panastien, who works in logistics and lives in Thailand’s northern city of Chiang Mai, had time on his hands because of COVID-19.  So last month he launched a start-up, Bsamfruit Durian Delivery, which is devoted to Southeast Asia’s trademark spiny, fleshy tropical fruit. Mr Nattapong’s two partners are his brother, a gym owner, and a friend who has a restaurant. Both of their businesses were ordered to be closed under Thailand’s coronavirus lockdown.

It is Thailand’s hot season, with temperatures in the high 30s, and the air is pungent with the aroma of ripening mango, rambutan, mangosteen and durian.

Thailand’s coronavirus caseload, about 3,000 confirmed infections so far, is small for a country of 69 million. But the grounding of flights and the disruption of supply chains have hammered its tourism- and export-dependent economy.

Still, durian is having one of its strongest-ever selling seasons, according to growers in Thailand, the world’s biggest durian producer, and in China, its biggest market. Prices for the fruit are set to rise about 15 per cent this year thanks to Chinese wholesalers, he said, and growers have shipped more than 100,000 tonnes to China.

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