The coronavirus pandemic has hit Peru, and it has touched onion grower-shippers there, marketers say.
“We’ve had to take some precautions because Lima and the big cities are having their troubles with COVID right now,” said Mark Breimeister, sweet onion sales agent with Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Potandon Produce and owner of Detroit-based Triple A Produce Exchange.
“Our grower has taken his personnel and moved them into dorms to make sure they’re away from the hot spots.”
The restrictions on movement and requirements for extra staffing in Peru have created some hurdles, said Delbert Bland, president of Glennville, Ga.-based Bland Farms LLC.
“It’s affected us much more in Peru than here,” Bland said. “They restrict the people on the highway, and we’re having trouble getting drivers for trucks. You have to have full-time doctors and nurses on staff, per 500 people. You can get them; it adds a lot more costs.”
There have been some restrictions in the fields, too, Bland said.
“They have to wear masks,” he said. “In the beginning, they restricted anyone being on the Pan-American highway, and we had to buy tents for irrigators. You have to water these onions continuously in the desert or they won’t live. The irrigators had to stay on the fields.”
The COVID-19 outbreak prompted numerous maneuvers for Glennville, Ga.-based G&R Farms’ Peruvian operations, said Walt Dasher, co-owner.
“Operationally, we have made several changes,” he said. “Sanitation has always been a key part of our food safety. I think most produce packing plants were ahead of the curve on sanitation.”
As part of G&R’s food-safety program, crew leaders have always signed off on hand-washing when workers come and go from the packing floor, Dasher noted.
“We have added masks and social distancing,” he said. “Some of our growers have staggered work shifts to lower the number of workers in the packing house at any one time. So far we have had great success preventing COVID-19.”
The pandemic prompted a sales spike in packaged onions — at least for a while, Breimeister said.
“I think when this initially hit, that was kind of a trend; now, with COVID as a way of life at this point, I think shopper habits have gone back to normal,” he said. “We still sell the bulk of the product loose in 40-pound cartons.”
Bland said any uptick in bagging was not related to Peruvian operations.
“That has nothing to do with it,” he said. “We do all the bagging here. We pack them in bulk containers over there and bring them here. We’re able to repack them into whatever we need, once we get them here.”
The widespread restaurant shutdowns didn’t affect Peru’s onion suppliers, marketers noted.
“Peruvian onions don’t usually see a lot of foodservice action,” Breimeister said.
Others agreed, noting that their sales are primarily retail-focused.
“We don’t do any foodservice,” Bland said.
However, retail sales have gotten a healthy boost, Bland said.
“More people buy them and eat at home,” he said. “With foodservice shut down, it has created more of a demand for onions in the store. When this all really struck, foodservice really stopped.”
A short Vidalia onion season created an opportunity for Peruvian onions, some marketers said.
“I think it left Peru wide open when the product started to arrive and we pushed it as early as possible,” Breimeister said Aug. 25. “We’re already three or four weeks into this deal. We’ve extended the season so much to get things here early, that added at least three weeks’ worth of additional selling time for us.”
Prices were reaching unexpected heights, Breimeister noted.
“I think we’re probably a good $2-4 above typical Peruvian pricing at this point this season,” he said.
G&R’s Dasher said sales have been increasing, anyway.
“The demand for Peru sweet onions grows every year,” he said.
“Year over year, our volume continues to increase. Sustainability is a key focus for us, which is why our boxes and sweet onion bags are boxes are 100% recyclable, and we’re continuing to research alternative options to reduce plastic and netting with our bags.”
Supply chain hitches
The pandemic has created a few logistical difficulties, some marketers said.
“They did take those preventative measures and moved people away from the cities, but we have seen a disruption in shipping,” Breimeister said.
Cargo vessels that typically go directly to U.S. ports are making extra stops, Breimeister said.
“They’re going to Panama and making additional stops along the way, taking cargo to different ports, so it’s delaying shipping times, and ports aren’t fully staffed, once we do arrive, so it takes a little bit longer to get product from the port to our packing facilities,” he said.
The extra stops — often to take on additional cargo — are indicative of problems COVID-19 has created, Breimeister said.
“You’re not getting full ships or volume coming out of Peru,” he said.
That could change quickly, though, Breimeister said, noting that “we’re early in the game. There might not be enough other items and onions to make a go of it. It could straighten out as the season progresses.”
That is no surprise in a year in which “nothing is normal,” Breimeister said.
“Everything seems to be a little different from what our usual dance card is, so who knows what will be thrown at us next?” he said.
Dasher said there have been some logistical challenges this year.
“Peru is actually going well so far, but yes, the vessel companies are going through hard times mostly all centered around changes out of China,” he said.
“Demand is good; sweet onion business continues to be focused on retail grocers.”
Greencastle, Pa.-based Keystone Fruit Marketing Co. has dealt successfully with COVID-19’s obstacles, said Matthew Gideon, onion commodity manager.
“We are fortunate to have a great team of people at Keystone who have all banded together to evolve and take care of our customers’ needs as best we can in this unchartered territory we’ve all found ourselves in the last several months,” he said.
A ‘new normal’
Video calls now are “the new normal,” Gideon said, noting that “we’ve done our best to ensure we’re staying in touch with customers — putting our relationships and partnerships first, as always.”
Demand is very high on onions, so it’s important to be proactive with customers in order to meet their needs, Gideon said.
“There hasn’t been any effect on harvest, packing, or shipping due to the outbreak,” he said.
“We have been fortunate, and we’ve also put measures in place to secure our supply as best we can. We haven’t missed a beat in our coordination between our operations, sales, and marketing teams during these times.”
Demand has remained steady throughout the pandemic, said Barry Rogers, consultant with RogersAgro Inc., Melbourne, Fla., who works with G&R Farms.
“Demand has stayed steady through COVID, because people didn’t quit going to the grocery store,” he said.
“Very little foodservice is in the sweet onion pile, so, really, the sweet onion guys have kind of gone unscathed with the utility and rest of the onions.”
There was a slight shortage in Peru early in the shipping season, but volumes were steadily increasing, Rogers said.
“They’re going into spring and, every week, you are going to get better sizes,” he said.