The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic affecting U.S. businesses is a multi-headed monster for the agriculture sector, and produce suppliers in California’s Kern County are no exception.
Grower-shippers and marketers are dealing with foodservice closures, possible labor shortages and tightened personnel protocols as they head into the 2020 season.
State and local shelter-in-place restrictions, as well as government-ordered business shutdowns or slowdowns, have shaken demand patterns and left suppliers not knowing what to expect next, said Casey Creamer, president and CEO of the Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.
“It’s varied; it’s really by variety and it’s very volatile, so in supermarkets, as the shelter-in-place orders took effect, we did see some increases in mandarins and navels and other varieties,” he said.
“Where it got hurt was lemons, which were focused on foodservice.”
Orders have see-sawed, as well, he said.
“I’ve heard when we had orders first in place that orders jumped, with navels and mandarins, but that died down and then jumped again,” Creamer said.
Demand for some citrus items shot up dramatically, but not on the international market, said Dennis Johnston, owner of Edison, Calif.-based Johnston Farms, which just wrapped up its citrus production and will move into potatoes around May 10 and bell peppers June 1.
“Demand picked way up,” he said.
“But prices were depressed before this because the overseas markets have been depressed all year. South Korea and China were not buying as much the last year or two. New Zealand has bug issues and has been shut off. Australia has been slow. So, 25% of the industry’s market has been shut off because of this overseas problem. We were trying to shove all this in the U.S. and Canadian markets.”
Demand for carrots has shot up, as well, said Doug Stewart, salesman at Arvin, Calif.-based Kern Ridge Growers LLC.
“It’s crazy, that’s why we’re in a crazy business,” he said.
What’s driving the uptick?
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“The virus, panic buying,” Stewart said. “Rain. Schools, all the kids are getting sack breakfast and lunch.”
Kern Ridge supplies carrots year-round, Stewart said, noting that the company will finish its navel harvest by early May and move into valencias.
The company’s foodservice business is limited to schools, Stewart said.
“Closures haven’t affected us one bit; we actually can’t keep up with them,” he said.
After COVID-19 hit, consumers started buying large amounts of fruits and vegetables that had shelf life under refrigeration, Johnston said.
“That’s when it took off, and it’s still strong,” he said.
“There’s been some signs of moderating, but I don’t think there’s any worry fruit will fall on the ground before we finish.”
Packaged fruit may become more common in the wake of the pandemic, Creamer said.
“I’ve heard that, especially lemons trying to go with more bags, but the other problem is the demand on bags and the ability to get them has been frustrating; they’re not available,” he said.
As of mid-April, there were plenty of labor available, but logistics could be a problem, especially for exports, Creamer said.
“What we’re hearing is it’s a significant challenge, not only domestically, but internationally, finding container vessels,” he said.
“They’ve been able to work through that, for the most part.”
Finding enough trucks might be a problem, he noted.
“Transportation is difficult, too, as you’d imagine, with all the essential items on order,” he said. “I don’t see any relief in sight there. We’ve been able to operate, for the most part, but it’s been a challenge.”
COVID-19 has delivered perhaps its harshest blow on restaurants, and it likely will cut into foodservice sales at Bakersfield, Calif.-based Dan Andrews Farms LLC, said Danny Andrews, owner.
“It will reduce my customer base because of the restaurant and school closures,” he said.
“That’s a good majority of the distribution from the wholesalers I sell. That’s going to limit me to retail, and I’m a small shipper.”
Andrews said he had heard the foodservice trade had been cut by as much as 80%.
“We can all live with 10-20% down, but not 80%,” he said.
“Some of the guys who already have a thriving take-out operation are staying with it, but guys that aren’t set up or familiar with the standard operating procedures of getting people to curbside, everyone is trying it, but they’re only getting a few sales, initially; it’s not a barn-buster.”
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Shifting more business to retail isn’t much of a relief, Andrews said, because he’s not a year-round shipper.
“But I’m a speculator, and I’ve been in the game a long time, around 30 years, so I know sometimes there’s no business,” he said.
“But this hit everyone. A lot of my customers are working from home and most are closed one or maybe two days a week.”
Labor might be an issue this year as the deal progresses, thanks to COVID-19, Andrews said.
“I talk to a lot of labor contractors in Imperial Valley, and I can get some of those experienced crews (early in the deal), but looking ahead to my next crop, I’ve been trying to get bids for summer melons,” he said.
“Right now, he said they can’t cross the border at Mexicali. I don’t think it’s a matter of fear of working, but it’s very difficult to move around if you live in Mexico.”
Suppliers say they have implemented all recommended restrictions in the wake of COVID-19, including social distancing.
“We’re doing all the things that they are recommending,” Johnston said.
“They’re wearing some sort of dust masks, and we’re providing them when we can get them. Everybody’s washing hands, wearing gloves. We’re doing all we can. The biggest thing is to try to keep them all apart and, by and large, we’ve been successful.”
The process of harvesting has some alterations, Johnston said.
“We’ll be ready,” he said.
“Bell peppers are still-hand-picked, but the way we pick them, we think we can put people behind our picking belt and six feet apart when they’re working across the rows from each other. We think we can overcome it by having them pick every other row.”
Safety also is a priority at Edison-based Kirschenman Enterprises Inc., said Wayde Kirschenman, owner and president.
“We’re trying to keep everybody safe, and we have extra hand-washing and sanitation stations,” he said.
“We have everybody wearing masks and scarves but at same time doing best we can to sanitize everything, but we’re also an essential business, getting potatoes harvested and packed. We’ve been really careful. We haven’t been affected much; things are going a little slower as we take all these extra precautions.”
Year-round potato supplier TD Produce Sales, in Bakersfield, has felt a pinch from the pandemic, said Tom Drulias, owner.
“It has affected demand on the potatoes used by the restaurants and foodservice purveyors,” he said.