( Courtesy Owyhee Produce )

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Idaho-Eastern Oregon onion shippers expect to ship a lot more of their product in packages this year, thanks to the coronavirus.

“COVID-19 has changed the way consumers approach the grocery store,” said Tiffany Cruickshank, transportation manager and sales and marketing representative with Parma, Idaho-based Snake River Produce Co. LLC.

Online and delivery, as well as curbside pickup, options have taken hold among consumers, which has fed the growth in packaging, she said.

“And while in the store, it appears consumers do not want to touch loose produce that others may have previously touched, inspected, etc.,” she said. 

“I think we are all more aware of germs than previously and eliminating touch-points is a concern.”

Snake River has consumer bags in 2-, 3-, 5- and 10-pound options, and Cruickshank foresees those pre-packaged options gaining popularity throughout the duration of the current pandemic and potentially into the future, “as this may permanently change consumer behavior.”

Packaging manufacturers have heard increased calls for product, said Jeff Watkin, marketing director with Collinsville, Ill.-based bag maker Sev-Rend Corp.

“The need for 2-pound and 3-pound onion packaging has been fierce, due to the pandemic,” Watkin said. 

“Consumers are shying away from the loose onion options in the store and opting for consumer packs to cut down on the need to visit the retailer frequently.”

As COVID-19 has swept across North America, Sev-Rend has been seeing a surge in the demand for any type of packaging vehicle for fresh produce — especially for onions, Watkin said.

“The tag/net combo along with the film/net combo are still the most popular packaging vehicle for onions,” he said. 

“With consumer shopping patterns and the retail landscape adapting to the pandemic, we are seeing the consumer packs being preferred over the individual/loose onion selections.”

Pandemic or no pandemic, consumers still are looking for recyclable packaging, Watkin said.

“Recyclable packaging options are in constant demand right now,” he said. “We see many packers/shippers utilizing a film/netting combo that is recyclable for the everyday consumer.”

Two-, 3- or 5-pound bags are popular bag sizes, Watkin said.

“Sustainability initiatives are driving packers to looking at options that are recyclable or (reduce the use) of plastic by shrinking the amount of material used for the packaging,” he said.

What the future holds for bulk onion sales, nobody knows, said Steve Baker, partner at Ontario, Ore.-based Baker & Murakami Produce Co.

“It might be too early to forecast bulk/loose onion sales versus packaged sales,” he said. 

“I’m guessing the retail trade will try to increase 3-pound, 5-pound and 10-pound packaging versus bulk displays.”

Consumer packaging was popular long before the pandemic; now, it is especially attractive in the COVID-19 landscape, said Herb Haun, owner of Weiser, Idaho-based grower-shipper of Haun Packing.

“However, bulk onions sales are still steady, due much in part to the fact that onion skins are removed prior to use, and particularly this is the case with our storage variety onions that have tight golden-brown skins,” he said.

Idaho Falls, Idaho-based grower-shipper Eagle Eye Produce expects an uptick in demand for packaging this year, said Dallin Klingler, marketing/communications manager.

“We expect a stronger demand for smaller retail packs after the COVID pandemic, especially as the USDA (Farmers to Families Food) Box program continues, but we think that bulk/loose will remain stable,” he said.

People wanted grab-and-go items when the pandemic started, and that demand is still around, said John Vlahandreas, onion program director with Idaho Falls-based Wada Farms.

“But once we realize that we have to peel and clean, I think that will stabilize; we can create a lot of waste by buying in bulk on produce, and when we start tossing out food, I think we will take a look at how we choose to purchase,” he said.