Grower-shippers in California’s Salinas Valley were experiencing varying degrees of success as they struggled to cope with the continuing COVID-19 crisis this spring.
Retail sales spiked for a time in March as Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a “shelter-in-place” order, but foodservice movement slowed as restaurants shut down or reduced their service to takeout.
Meanwhile, suppliers were complying with statewide orders to maintain social distance and practice other measures to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Produce grower-shippers are considered an essential business, so harvest and production teams could continue to work, said Diana McClean, senior director of marketing for Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, Calif.
“We are implementing innovative solutions to rearrange workspaces in crop rows and on harvest equipment to allow for social distancing,” she said.
All Ocean Mist Farms employees have paid benefits, medical and sick leave in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, McClean said.
New regulations designed to thwart the coronavirus required modifications in how truckers were received in the loading area, she said, and the trucker lounge was closed.
Only one person at a time was allowed in the office to check in.
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Many office staffers were working from home, and carpooling was discouraged.
Harvest tools and equipment contact surfaces are regularly sanitized, face masks were ordered for harvest team members, who also wear gloves and hair nets, lunch hours were staggered to avoid congregating in groups and other preventive protocols have been implemented, she said.
The foodservice segment seems to be among the hardest hit by the coronavirus, said Steve Koran, general manager for Bengard Ranch Inc. in Salinas.
“This is unprecedented,” he said.
Some sectors of the retail business have moved upward, but retail can’t absorb all the volume planted for the entire supply chain, he said.
Some acreage already had been disked.
Salinas-based Hitchcock Farms had employees rotating working from home to lessen office traffic, said Dan Holt, vice president of sales and marketing.
On the packing and harvesting side, workers have been reminded of social distancing and other COVID-19 requirements.
But some sales have slumped.
“Business is off in foodservice for sure,” he said.
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Some restaurants have had some success with takeout programs, he said.
And the company was able to donate some foodservice packages to charitable causes rather than allow it to go to waste.
At Hitchcock Farms, export sales seem to have remained steadier than domestic foodservice business, Holt said.
As with other grower-shippers, retail sales at Gonzalez, Calif.-based Misionero Vegetables LLC were up in mid-April, while foodservice business was trending down, said Nicole Zapata, marketing manager.
Meanwhile, the company was working to keep the work environment as safe as possible.
“We’ve established smaller crews in the fields and on our production lines, as well as having appropriate employees work from home to practice social distancing and operate the business effectively,” she said.
Gib Papazian, president of Lucky Strike Farms, Burlingame, Calif., had good reason to be working from home. He and his wife had “fairly significant” fevers and were instructed by their doctors to avoid contact with others, he said.
Fortunately, he said in early April, both were feeling better than they were a week or so earlier.
Meantime, staff members were in and out of the office intermittently, and Papazian was plugged into the company’s mainframe.
“We all talk all day long, just like I’m sitting there,” he said.
Some export business had slowed, Papazian said, though not as much as he had anticipated.
He managed to see one bright spot in the crisis.
“We’re all working triple time, and the stress levels are off the charts,” he said. “But at least we’ve got jobs.”
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