"What's happening at the moment is unprecedented, not just on a company scale, but at world level, too", says Petra Veldman with the Belgium tomato nursery Stoffels Tomatoes. "It has a huge societal impact. Containing the virus is what's most important now, in our company, too."
That takes quite some work with a crew of 250, but it keeps going better 'after a first week of light panic, buying extra hygiene materials in record time, organizing working from home for office staff and making sure that everyone keeps their distance in greenhouse, cafeteria and packing hall', Petra recounts.
"And in the mean time, we try our best to keep the spirit up. We are working very hard to make sure stores are filled with tomatoes, and for that we are very grateful to our devoted crew."
Keeping people healthy and safe
In the industry the company saw the effects of the hoarding, but that stabilized this week. And it's not the biggest concern now for Petra and the rest of the management. "We will survive, even if a big part of our sales to catering and food service are gone. Right now it's more important to keep our staff safe and healthy, motivate them and making sure they feel comfortable coming to work. We've arranged everything as well as we can and we hope not too many people will get sick."
To take care of that, last week, in between the peak demand from retail, management constantly had crisis meetings to prevent staff from falling ill. "We can make it work when there's up to 10% fallout, larger numbers will be hard."
Learning to wash hands
In the packing hall partitions are placed to divide staff as well as possible, and where partitions are not possible the 1.5 meter regulation is strictly kept. "We've really had to make sure our staff was serious about all these measures. There were a few times I really had to raise my voice when people weren't keeping their distance. Luckily, everyone stands up for each other and every day it goes better. We already had strict hygiene regulations because of virus pressure in the cultivation, that also helped."
In addition to those measures, lines have been drawn on the floor to indicate the right distance, if necessary people work in shifts, and 'everywhere, really everywhere' there's hand gel available. "Teaching the right way to wash hands is very important now. Communication is crucial, so we translate flyers to the workers' language and provide tips to take home, even though you can't control everything. Special cleaning crews cleanse every surface that people touch with their hands throughout the day."
Governmental aid helps
The system of technical unemployment goes for sectors where work has stopped and employees are unable to work. "In our sector it's important to maintain enough workers. Luckily measures have been taken for that, too. The government arranged extension of the harvest cards, so we get to employ seasonal employees longer. It would be something if we had to send them home because of regulations, while we need them so bad."
Petra is also happy about the establishment of ERMG, the Economic Risk Management Group. The ERMG's purpose is to insure the economical and macroeconomical risks of the coronavirus. Piet Vantemsche was named president, next to Pierre Wunsch. "He used to be president of the Boerenbond (farmers association), so with his knowledge of agriculture, for me he is the right man in the right place."
The Stoffels team at the Fruit Logistica 2020
With all the corona problems, it's guesswork for the coming weeks, more than ever. "We have to wait to see what comes, although the first signals, the collapse of the prices, doesn't look promising. The production volumes will go up, and tomatoes can't be stored like a lot of other fresh fruits and vegetables. But, again, keeping our staff healthy and safely at work is our main focus. They, like all colleagues in the food supply chain, deserve a round of applause for their work."
Petra wrote a letter to thank their staff, and an appeal to society to thank workers who are still ensuring food production and supplies. This text can be found on the Facebook page and on the website.