Today's important COVID-19 news in the fresh produce sector

Corona-update: More than 26,000 Brits to pick fruit and veg in the UK

As we speak, thousands of people have applied to pick crops on farms to plug the labour shortage of overseas workers prevented from coming to the UK. Also, migrant workers are keeping Switzerland’s asparagus supplies moving, despite earlier fears they could be kept out by border restrictions. Airline Eurowings intends to bring tens of thousands of harvest workers to Germany.

Also on the labor front: H-2A worker delays are causing concern in North Carolina and West Coast growers are having to ley some crops in their fields. In the US border states, produce shippers fear that new inspection requirements may raise the risk of spreading COVID not through produce but through people. Stay informed of all the ways the world is dealing with the Corona-virus.

Eurowings brings seasonal harvest workers into Germany
Airline Eurowings intends to bring tens of thousands of harvest workers to Germany together with German farmers’ associations. The subsidiary of the Lufthansa Group already offers initial services on a specially set up harvest workers’ website to bring urgently needed seasonal workers to their places of work as quickly as possible. The first Eurowings special flights, for example from Düsseldorf to Bucharest (Romania) and back, are already scheduled to take off this week.

The aim is to provide the best possible help to German farmers in a very difficult situation as well as to counteract supply bottlenecks for fruit and vegetables.


Migrant workers help in Swiss asparagus harvest
Migrant workers, drawn in by attractive pay rates, are keeping Switzerland’s asparagus supplies moving during the coronavirus crisis despite fears they could be kept out by border restrictions.

Seasonal farm workers in Switzerland earn about 3,300 Swiss francs ($3,400) a month for a 55-hour work week, about half the national average in one of the world’s most expensive countries. It is hard, outdoor work, in all conditions.

In the Jucker Farm’s asparagus fields north of Zurich, a crew of 80 Polish and Romanian workers, many of whom have been coming for years, harvest and wash about 1,000 kg (2,200 lb) per day of the spring delicacy. The previous day’s haul sells out by nightfall, for around 28 francs per kilo, or $14 per pound, for top-quality spears, with sales from the farm shop holding up well although deliveries to restaurants are down.


H-2A worker delays are causing concern in North Carolina
Farmer Reggie Strickland spent a stressful week recently wondering whether he would even be able to get labor to put crops in the ground at his 3,500-acre eastern North Carolina farm growing corn, soybeans, tobacco, sweet potatoes, and cucumbers for pickles.

Strickland, like many US farmers, particularly those growing produce, relies on seasonal immigrant labor under what is known as the federal H-2A program. H-2A allows farm workers from other countries to work here for a nine-month period every year as long as producers can show that there is a shortage of U.S. labor willing and able to do the work.

As April began, Strickland had five H-2A workers helping with tillage. By mid-April he hopes another 15 will arrive to begin transplanting tobacco plants from the greenhouse onto 150 acres. Still more, up to 75, will be here in May and June to cut (by hand) the sweet potato sprouts in beds to be transplanted onto 600 acres. Still more work with tobacco, cucumbers, and sweet potatoes will keep most of the workers busy into fall.


Lettuce left in Californian fields as demand withers
Americans stuck at home to help curb the spread of the coronavirus can’t buy enough toilet paper, guns, cleaning supplies and alcohol, but there’s plenty of lettuce and leafy greens. In fact, there is so much that West Coast growers are letting some crops die in the field. That's because in good times the majority of lettuce and broccoli are actually sold to restaurants and schools, not supermarkets.

“This thing has been just like hitting a brick wall, and we don’t know how long it's going to last,” Larry Cox, owner of Salinas, California-based Coastline Family Farms, told reporters. Normally at this time of year his farms that sprawl across more than 10,000 acres in California, Arizona and Mexico, would be sending out 120,000 boxes of iceberg lettuce, romaine, green and red leaf lettuce, broccoli and cauliflower a week. About 70% of that would be going to food service companies and 30% to supermarkets. “We’re lucky if we harvest much over 60% of what we have ready and scheduled to harvest the last couple weeks.”


Maryland farms embracing change
For farmers, periods of uncertainty are nothing new. Every year, they face the possibility of frosts, floods, droughts, and subsequent crop losses. When Maryland’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed on March 5, it would be just one week before Governor Hogan enacted social distancing measures to slow the coronavirus’s spread. In the coming days, many local businesses would close, and the city’s restaurant scene would come to a grinding halt, virtually drying up a primary source of income for many local farmers.

But with the global food supply chain turned on its head, consumers have been quick to express new interest in purchasing their food directly from local farmers, leaving many growers rushing to adapt this evolving market—adding e-commerce platforms to their websites, devising distribution systems for at-home delivery or drive-through pick-ups, and incorporating no-touch harvesting and handling protocols. The Farm Alliance of Baltimore has also been sharing cooking demonstrations on social media.


US produce shippers fear inspectors could spread COVID
Bringing fruit and vegetables from Mexico through Nogales Arizona is an industry worth billions. Now industry leaders are worried new inspection requirements may raise the risk of spreading COVID not through produce but through people. Produce packers want inspections unrelated to health and safety suspended until the virus threat subsides.


More than 26,000 join British land army to pick fruit and veg
Thousands of people have applied to pick crops on farms to plug the labour shortage of overseas workers prevented from coming to the UK because of coronavirus travel freezes. In fact, more than 26,000 have answered a call to arms to 'help feed the nation' by ensuring there are enough workers to pick fruit and vegetables before they go rotten.

They were was sought by three labour firms - Fruitful jobs, HOPs and Concordia - who joined forces to urgently drum up a sufficient workforce.  The providers claim to have been 'overwhelmed' by the 'massive' response and have been had to turn down some hopefuls.


Germany exempts 40,000 seasonal workers from entry restrictions
Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer and Federal Minister of Agriculture Julia Klöckner have agreed to exempt 40,000 foreign season workers through April and May from the current entry restrictions for this category of workers due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

The join concept presented by the ministers aims to exempt from the entry restrictions on seasonal workers those working in the field of fruit and vegetable growing, as a lot of companies in Germany depend on harvest helpers from abroad.

An announcement published by the German Ministry of Interior website notes that around 20 thousand workers have entered Germany from the beginning of the year until the introduction of restrictions, while about 100,000 seasonal workers are necessary for the agriculture by the end of May.


Tamil Nadu banana auction centres shut, leaving growers with huge losses
Banana farmers are worst hit as the auction centres remain closed and the demand for plantain leaves has plummeted following the closure of eateries across the state of Tamil Nadu. Banana is cultivated in around 11,500 acres in the district.

The auction centres for the banana bunches located in Nadukkadai and Tiruvaiyaru are closed due to the lockdown, which added to the woes of the banana farmers. Besides the fruits, farmers also get revenue by selling banana leaves to hotels and eateries. The farmers used to sell the leaves to agents, who usually send it to far off places like Chennai, on omni buses every day.


Virus sparks boom for local Hong Kong farmers
After a coronavirus-fuelled wave of panic-buying briefly left Hong Kong's supermarket shelves bare, residents are turning to local producers for fresh food in a city almost entirely reliant on imports.

Covid-19 has threatened global supply chains as countries impose lockdowns and border restrictions, but for Hong Kong's dwindling farming community, the pandemic has sparked a sudden boom in business. The twice-weekly market at Mapopo Community Farm in suburban northeast Hong Kong has doubled takings since the outbreak became a major public health issue in February.

The pandemic has prompted more people to rethink what can be produced in Hong Kong, said Mandy Tang, who runs a campaign group that rallies behind the city's farmers by promoting local produce.


Potato price surges by 28% -38% in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal
Potato prices have surged 28-38% in UP and West Bengal, the top two producers of the tuber which has become the staple across India during the Covid-19-induced lockdown. There has been an increase in demand for the tuber from the southern states, Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand and Assam, with the result that prices have increased markedly.

Traders said prices had remained firm since the beginning of the year but were expected to drop from March, before the spread of the coronavirus changed the scenario. The moment the lockdown was announced, people bought potato in bulk and stored it amid fears that they might not get their supplies later. This led to the spurt in prices.


Indian fruit and vegetable exports back to near-normal
The Agricultural Produce Marketing Committee located in Vashi told that 140 tonnes mangoes have been shipped from Mumbai on Saturday 4th April for the markets in the Middle East, restoring the export of essential commodities via sea route.

The export of essential commodities like vegetables and fruits, which takes place through sea routes, bounced back to near-normal levels with the mango consignment to the Middle East. Not only this, the arrival of mangoes is also increasing at the markets. But, exports via air is yet to start on a large scale as exporters wait for government’s decision on subsidies to get relief for the cargo freight rates that have increased three fold since Coronavirus outbreak.

Drop in demand
Still, in New Delhi the demand for fruit and veg has dropped by 60% as bulk buyers stay away

The demand for vegetables and fruits in the wholesale markets have declined significantly since the lockdown came into force on March 24 midnight as bulk buyers are staying away, said M.R. Kripani, President, Azadpur Fruit and Vegetable Merchants Association.

According to Kirpani, demand for fruits and vegetables have dropped around 60 percent as hotels, markets and restaurants are closed and supply to outstations is completely hampered. Anticipating a shortfall in supply of fruits and vegetables during the lockdown period, people have started hoarding them, which has led to a price surge, he added.


UAE farmers have 'never been so busy'
Farmers in the UAE are bucking a global trend after finding a way to thrive as the widespread financial impact of the coronavirus outbreak continues to be felt by embattled traders. While many companies across the Emirates and internationally are being forced to make rapid changes due to the pandemic, some in the country's agriculture sector are reaping the rewards of a spike in demand for local produce.

And the long-term impact of the Covid-19 outbreak could bring lasting benefits for local farmers and food security in the UAE, Yazen Al Kodmani, operations manager at Emirates Bio Farm, believes.

While the current harvesting season in the UAE is approaching an end, Mr Al Kodmani said he hoped that consumers who have turned to local produce, perhaps for the first time, amid the current outbreak would continue to support UAE farmers.


New Thai nationwide curfew started Friday
Thailand has seen a nationwide night-time curfew from Friday (April 3), in the latest measure to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Announcing the move in a televised address on Thursday, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said: “We all need to adapt to survive and be responsible to society so that we can overcome this crisis. However, to increase the effectiveness of the effort to control the spread and reduce commutes, I am issuing a curfew order nationwide.

The curfew will run from 10 pm to 4 am and violators could face up to 2 years in prison and a fine of up 40,000 baht (S$1,738), according to a written order signed by Mr Prayut. Transport of goods, fuel, medicines and medical supplies, and the movement of patients and medical personnel are exempt from the ban.


Agriculture Ministers of Latin America unite before Covid-19
The Secretary of Agriculture, Víctor Villalobos Arámbula, and ministers of the sector in the Pacific Alliance region: Colombia, Chile and Peru, as well as South America: Bolivia and Ecuador, held a virtual meeting focused on sharing health protocols, actions and experiences for the mitigation of COVID-19 effects in the sector.

They agreed on the opportunity represented by establishing an information mechanism, in coordination with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), for the management of public policies that affect agricultural productivity.

In this sense, the head of Agriculture of Mexico pointed out that the federal government has acted and defined a policy aimed at reducing the impacts on public health and the economic sector.

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