( Courtesy Boskovich Farms )

As California leaf and lettuce grower-shippers adapt to a new way of doing business as a result of COVID-19, the effect of the pandemic on sales has varied. 

“The net impact on produce overall was positive, as consumers recognized the need for nutritious foods during shelter-in-place orders, and as stores remained open and operational thanks to the tireless efforts of our retail and distribution partners,” said Bil Goldfield, director of corporate communications for Dole Food Co., Charlotte, N.C., which sources 80% of its summer leaf and lettuce items from California.

“Any positives during this time are entirely due to these employees as well as their counterparts at Dole,” he said.

Potatoes and similar pantry-friendly items saw the greatest lift, Goldfield said, while staple products like bananas, mushrooms, salads and fresh-packed vegetables remained fairly strong.

Costlier items or those considered more of a luxury, such as pineapples and exotic fruits and vegetables, were slower to move. 

At the same time, foodservice business pretty much came to a halt.

“It is slowly starting to rebound, but is expected to be slow due to another round of restaurant closings at the state level (in California),” he said.      

The team at Misionero Vegetables, Gonzalez, Calif., “is working in sync to make our work environment as safe as possible,” said Nicole Zapata, marketing director.

The company has set up smaller crews in the fields and on production lines and is providing appropriate spacing to comply with social distancing guidelines.

Although retail sales initially spiked as a result of the coronavirus, they have “settled to be more moderate,” she said.

Foodservice business took a significant hit, but the company is beginning to see a rebound.

Zapata estimated the second week in July that foodservice was about 70% of the anticipated volume.

Salinas, Calif.-based Church Brothers Farms has enhanced health and safety measures in the office and in the field and packinghouse, said Rick Russo, senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Measures include routine temperature checks, glass dividers between desk spaces, mandatory mask use, enforced social distancing and heightened sanitation, including regular cleaning of office spaces and availability of cleaning/hygiene supplies.

Foodservice business has been picking up as states reopen restaurants, Russo said.

“Initially, we saw foodservice volumes as low as 50% of normal, but after the initial weeks, we’ve seen a gradual increase with each new week.”

By late June and into early July, foodservice business was almost back to normal, he said, with much higher percentages than at the outset of the pandemic.

About half of the office staff at The Nunes Co. Inc., Salinas, has been working from home since mid-March, said sales manager Johnny Amaral.

“It’s going to change the way business has been done forever,” he said. “Some people will never come back to the office.”

But there must be some onsite presence, he said.

“Produce is a hands-on deal, it changes so fast.”

There has to be coordination with the field and the harvesting crews, he said, which can’t be done remotely.

The company has implemented safety protocols in the field, such as social distancing, he said. But there had been no labor interruptions as of the first part of July.

When it comes to buying and selling, Amaral said he misses the synergy of having people in the office, which allows decisions to be made quickly.

Sometimes a buyer must talk to his boss before making a commitment, he said.

“Normally, you can get that done at the snap of a finger,” Amaral said. “Right now, there are more Zoom meetings and things like that.”

The company also has eliminated travel.

“I don’t see us traveling for a long time,” he said.

Some companies are involved with efforts to move fresh produce directly to families during the pandemic.

Church Brothers is participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers to Families Food Box program for a number of customers, Russo said.

The program includes field pack and value-added specialty items such as salad mixes and vegetable medleys.

Dole participated as a Pro*Act LLC partner in Feeding Our Frontlines, an initiative organized by a national partnership of fresh produce companies to bring boxes of fresh produce to healthcare employees and their families

during the COVID-19 crisis at no cost to recipients, Goldfield said.

Since its inception at the beginning of April, Feeding Our Frontlines has delivered more than 24,000 boxes to healthcare heroes on the frontlines of COVID-19, he said.

That equates to about 368,610 pounds of fresh produce provided free-of-charge to medical facilities, Goldfield said. 


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