Marketing the spring harvest and stored produce of the Carolinas isn’t the same game these days.
Some South Carolina growers who lost their customer base due to COVID-19 quarantine closures have pivoted from foodservice customers to direct-to-consumer business, and the state department of agriculture is helping this effort.
On the website, growers can offer their delivery, on-farm pickup, CSAs and other shopping options during this time of social distancing.
“We’ve seen a huge demand in that direct-to-consumer sales model, so that’s a way for food suppliers to pivot, and that’s been encouraging,” said Katie Pfieffer, the department’s director of merchandising.
Instead of a lot of in-store promotions and samplings for watermelon and other crops, as well as Certified South Carolina Grown produce, this summer, marketing specialists are working to drive demand through websites and social media by posting South Carolina grower and chef recipes and preparation tips.
For South Carolina peaches, the agriculuture department is going the way of digital ads on radio, TV and e-mail blasts, using a message that emphasizes the health benefits of peaches, said Kyle Tisdale, marketing specialist and executive director of the South Carolina Peach Council.
The North Carolina Department of Agriculture is doing all it can to promote local and state-grown fresh produce, said G.W. Stanley, assistant director for retail and foodservice, as well as “Got to Be NC” brand manager.
Foodservice wholesalers have had a 60% to 70% cut in business, he said.
North Carolina’s biggest crops based on cash receipts are sweet potatoes, apples, blueberries and tomatoes, according to the National Agricultural Statistical Services.
At Jackson Farming Co., Autryville, N.C., demand for the state’s 2019 sweet potatoes in storage is off due to COVID-19-induced shutdown of the foodservice industry, where as much as 40% of the company’s sweet potatoes would normally be sold, said Matt Solana, vice president of operations and supply chain.
Solana expects North Carolina broccoli, running May 15 through June, to face a low market also, as it’s on almost all restaurant and school menus.
“This should start to improve as the economy opens back up,” Solana said.
Demand for the company’s watermelon from Florida has been good so far, with somewhat lower f.o.b. prices than normal, but he is optimistic as the melon crop gets undeway in Georgia and North Carolina.
Demand for the organic blueberries from Coosaw Farms, based in Fairfax, S.C., grows steadily every year but it’s taken a bit of a hit this year, said owner Bradley O’Neal.
“I think stores are limited on what they can put out,” O’Neal said, but as businesses re-open, the market for “organics will rise again.”
While retail potato sales have stayed steadily 50% higher than normal after the initial “tremendous” spike in most retail products, almost nonexistant foodservice and wholesale sales have been slowly improving the past couple weeks, said Greg Cardamone, general manager of the vegetable business of L&M Cos., Raleigh, N.C.
“Probably because there’s a bit more restaurant activity, and we’re slowly seeing wholesale companies and foodservice companies ordering more products than in the previous week,” Cardamone said May 7.
But sales of restaurant-specific items such as larger-sized squash that chefs slice and the tomatoes and onions restaurants use for sandwiches are still “struggling,” Cardamone said.
To move some of the unsold product meant for foodservice customers, L&M has been able to contract with Feeding Florida, a food bank network, to make mixed-produce boxes.
The mixed boxes are more consumer friendly and eliminate the need for food bank volunteers to sort and repackage the produce.
“It has definitely helped us,” Cardamone said. “It’s been good for the farm and good for the consumer.”
Jackson Farming’s North Carolina cantaloupe pack sizes have been getting smaller to fit the needs of retail partners.
In the past, a 24-inch bin of 110-count athena cantaloupes was the norm, and today the company is packing 18-inch bins, which hold 80 cantaloupes, and six-to-nine count cartons.
“The biggest challenge is moving the foodservice portion of our storage sweet potatoes, and we hope with the quarantines being lifted to some degree we will see a return of that business,” Solana said.
Other than sweet potatoes, most of Jackson Farming’s crops are sold in bulk, such as broccoli crowns, watermelons, cantaloupes, honeydews and pumpkins, and Solana hasn’t seen any change in demand for packaged produce.
“However, it is interesting to note how plastic, up to a few months ago, had such a bad image, and today, due to COVID-19, it is once again riding high,” Solana said.
When restaurants first closed, many North Carolina wholesalers repackaged bulk items into smaller, more retail-oriented, consumer-friendly sizes.
“Another challenge is when things re-open: Getting it back from retail sizes to foodservice sizes. We’re kinda going around circles there,” Stanley said. “At the end of the day, we just want people to buy local.”