While a rocky economy and heavy dependence on migrant labor during the COVID-19 are big concerns, global produce industry leaders at the closing general session of United Fresh LIVE! also cited reasons for optimism.
Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, was joined on the virtual stage with trade and staff leaders from the Produce Marketing Association, the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, Western Growers and Freshfel Europe.
The challenges related to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines and restrictions on non-essential businesses in mid-March were severe initially and are still being felt by growers, said Dave Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers.
“I think we’ve had to pivot pretty quickly to new models of doing business,” he said.
Cash flow problems persist with growers who were heavily dependent on the foodservice market, and some are being kept afloat with “handshake agreements,” Puglia said.
“It’s a really tough time with that kind of business model, but it seems to be working,” he said, adding that growers are now receiving help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture coronavirus relief program.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the “stark” vulnerability of the industry’s dependence on migrant labor, Puglia said.
Growers have done all that they can to protect their workforce from the virus, he said, but close living quarters for many farmworkers makes it hard to change their environment.
“There’s not a lot we can do to change that too quickly, and it is why we’ve spent so much time as an industry to speed automation and mechanization of our field systems to get as quickly as we can out of this chronic dependence on human labor,” he said. “But I am optimistic; I think that every crisis presents opportunity, or for learning that can get you to opportunity, and I think we’ve seen that here with the resiliency of this industry.”
Uncertain path to new normal
The rise in COVID-19 cases with the reopening of several states is concerning, according to the panelists.
“(The virus) continues to be quite a challenge in the states here in the southern part of the U.S. where we are spiking to a level, frankly, that we hadn’t seen yet,” said Joe Don Zetzsche, chairman of the PMA and director of BLOOMS Flowers for H-E-B.
“It’s been challenging to see our customers react and try to serve those customers through the panic, through the challenges to supply chains and trying to support the customers’ needs, while also reaching out to the grower base,” he said.
H-E-B is working to support local food banks and also aims to assist growers who need to move excess supply.
“I feel that we are at a turning point, but I will say that there’s a lot of work ahead of us,” he said.
Ron Lemaire, president of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association, said deficit spending in Canada could eventually slow the economy, and high unemployment rates also could suppress consumer spending. On the other hand, declining COVID-19 case numbers are positive.
“Looking at how we’ve reacted as a sector in not only Canada but around the world, I’m very optimistic,” he said.
As consumers seek immunity-boosting items like citrus, the image of fresh produce in Europe has been elevated during the COVID-19 crisis, said Philippe Binard, general delegate for Freshfel Europe.
“We’ll have to see if how we can build on that in the future,” he said.
Strength of collaboration
Several industry leaders celebrated the collection of global leaders and the collaboration of the United Fresh LIVE! event.
“I really feel that it’s been a very positive shift in terms of collaboration,” said Davis Yung, chairman of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association and president of Fresh Direct Produce Ltd., Vancouver. “I’m looking at my (zoom) screen here, and this is unprecedented.”
Yung said the entire industry has become more comfortable with virtual meetings.
“I feel that the engagement from members and from different collaborations is really shifting the focus from addressing all the requirements and regulations and compliance to now, ‘How can we create a better future?’” he said.
While the industry has suffered with the COVID-19 pandemic, he said it has been relatively stable compared with other industries.
“So what can we do given that we have the opportunity to make a positive difference, to continue to advocate for healthy eating but also to give back to communities?” he asked.
Saying it “hit the nail on the head,” Stenzel praised the PMA’s Joy of Fresh campaign.
The Joy of Fresh campaign collects survey data every two weeks to understand shoppers’ attitudes about fresh produce, said Cathy Burns, CEO of the PMA.
PMA uses that data, in part, to work with key influencers on narratives surrounding produce safety and other topics.
Burns said PMA also has offered more virtual content to its members across the globe since COVID-19 began.
“Connections, content and advocacy are the three things that we have been laser-focused on over the last 13 weeks,” Burns said.
Michael Muzyk, president of New York-based Baldor Specialty Foods and chairman of United Fresh, likened the virtual session to long-ago department store rivals Macy’s and Gimbel’s sharing their strategies.
“United is trying to tear down that wall and bring us all together and say, there has to be a different path forward,” he said. “I don’t know what that path is exactly, but it’s going to require all of us to work together.”