The coronavirus has caused major shifts in the onion business, and grower-shippers across the Idaho-Eastern Oregon region say they are working to stay ahead of changes that sometimes come with little or no notice.
A collapse in foodservice sales is one example, said Mackenzie Mills, account manager with Bancroft, Wis.-based RPE Inc., which supplies onions from the region.
“Initially we experienced a large spike in retail and a drop in foodservice,” she said.
That pattern as familiar, particularly in the Idaho-Eastern Oregon region, said Herb Haun, owner of Haun Packing and promotion committee chairman of the Parma, Idaho-based Idaho-Eastern Oregon Onion Committee.
“As most folks were aware, during the final months of the season foodservice demand dropped due to the pandemic,” Haun said.
“The area grows a significant percentage of larger onions that are desired in foodservice, so there is no question that COVID hurt the growers and shippers.”
Foodservice business has slowly come back online, and RPE has come “very close” to normal volumes by late July, Mills said.
“Overall, onion demand is excellent right now,” Mills said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box program has provided a needed boost, she said.
“With the USDA Farmers to Families box program we have seen a big jump in demand on medium onions and consumer packs,” Mills said.
The virus outbreak, which began in late March, was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime disaster, said Steve Baker, partner at Ontario, Ore.-based Baker & Murakami Produce Co.
“From late March ’til late April, our business was 25%-30% of normal,” Baker said.
Finishing the packing season took four weeks longer than planned, Baker said.
“With restaurants and schools closing, the foodservice industry was hit hard by the pandemic,” he said.
The virus did not hit Baker & Murakami’s packing operation, which was fortunate, Baker said.
“Going into this upcoming season, starting in August, it will be anybody’s guess if business will be back to somewhat of a normal pattern compared to the previous startups,” he said.
Parma, Idaho-based Snake River Produce Co. LLC saw a “dramatic shift” from foodservice to retail when restaurants started shutting down and consumers started snapping up all available product in grocery stores, said Tiffany Cruickshank, Snake River’s transportation manager, who also handles sales and marketing.
“With the current balance, I see retail becoming more of a key player in our mix — offering a wide variety of packaging and sizes, while maintaining our traditional foodservice accounts,” Cruickshank said.
“In talking with customers, many are seeing 70% of their year-over-year average business on the foodservice side and increases up to 16% in the retail sector.”
Foodservice has rebounded, but hopes remained high that the trend would continue, Haun said.
“Onions going into retail was good, and we’ve been watching foodservice trends and, even with the recent spike in some states, foodservice demand continues to increase,” he said.
“We are very encouraged by that.”
The pandemic hit Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Eagle Eye Produce, as well, said Dallin Klingler, marketing/communications manager.
“In March, when restaurants were forced to close their doors, we had a sizeable drop-off in that business, while our smaller retail pack demand picked up,” he said.
“We are happy to have since recovered most of that foodservice business, now that foodservice operators have come back online nationally and the market has stabilized.”
Eagle Eye is hoping that success continues as the company works with its foodservice clients, Klingler said.
“The produce industry as a whole has shown how resilient it is, and we are proud to be a part of it,” he said.
Idaho Falls-based Wada Farms also felt the pandemic’s blow to foodservice, said John Vlahandreas, onion program director.
“That is slowly coming back, but we’re not sure we will be where we were before the pandemic,” he said.
The USDA program has helped to stem the pain of lost foodservice sales, Vlahandreas said, but he also noted that it’s “still not enough to cover what has been lost on the foodservice side.”
In Wada’s packing operation, some workers have missed time, “but automation over the last few years has helped most prepare for the worker shortage,” Vlahandreas said.