COVID-19 crisis: Fruit and vege rush is reminiscent of Christmas, say growers

WORKING: Growers and wholesalers are doing their best to maintain the supply of fresh produce to Australians during the coronavirus pandemic.
WORKING: Growers and wholesalers are doing their best to maintain the supply of fresh produce to Australians during the coronavirus pandemic.

A perfect storm of events is putting pressure on the fresh produce industry to maintain the flow of food but growers are stepping up to the plate.

There could also be cautiously good news to the current situation with many hoping consumers will up their intakes of vegetables, nuts, fruit and herbs.

Bushfires, drought conditions and the coronavirus pandemic have met to create in increase in immediate demand, according to NSW fresh produce peak industry body, Freshmark.

The organisation said the closure of restaurants and cafés, along with many Australians having to stay at home, has placed increasing pressure on the fresh produce industry to meet in-house consumption.


Freshmark chief executive officer, James Kellaway, said the current insatiable consuming market was putting unnecessary pressures on supply and demand that is impacting staple fresh produce lines.

"Australia's fruit and vegetable sector's focus is to ensure consumers can maintain a healthy, balanced diet with ease of access to fresh fruit and vegetables," Mr Kellaway said.

"In light of this, farmers and their wholesaling agents are doing their utmost to keep fresh produce flowing to local independent greengrocers to minimise disruptions to supply.

"Together with its members, Freshmark have been closely monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure the necessary measures are being taken to maintain an uninterrupted supply of high-quality fresh produce to greengrocers."

NSW Farmers' vice president, Chris Groves said farmers in NSW and across the country are busy doing what they do best- producing local food and fibre.

"The hens are still laying eggs, the dairy cows are still being milked, grain growers are preparing winter crops, orchards are still bearing fruit and Australian farmers are still producing the world's best produce," he said.

"This unprecedented event will have an impact on our export markets, which take around 75 per cent of what farmers produce, but Australians can be assured that there will be more than enough food for them."

The Queensland Horticulture Council has reassured customers that a steady stream of fresh fruits and vegetables will keep appearing on shelves.

Consumption boost

GROWCOM CEO, David Thomson, said there would be silver linings for growers amidst the coronavirus chaos.

"There is an enormous weight of evidence linking a varied diet that includes lots of fresh fruit and vegetable with improved immunity to every kind of disease," Mr Thomson said.

"Now more than ever is the time to consider eating more fresh produce and less processed goods.

"We hope promoting a change in diet now to improve our ability to withstand coronavirus will lead to long term behaviour change and improved public health outcomes."

Brisbane Markets Limited CEO, Andrew Young, said drought, summer bushfires and heatwaves, along with torrential rain and flooding in different growing regions across the country, had seen the price of some product lines, particularly vegetables, creep up over recent weeks as supplies tightened.

BENEFIT: While the pandemic is a concern, some organisations are tipping it will lead to an increase in fresh produce consumption for many.

BENEFIT: While the pandemic is a concern, some organisations are tipping it will lead to an increase in fresh produce consumption for many.

But he consumers could be confident fresh produce would continue to flow.

"The good news for consumers is that, as favourable conditions continue and growers ramp up production, the volume of produce coming into the Brisbane Markets at Rocklea is expected to continue to increase," he said.

"Even those vegetable lines where there had been limited availability should see prices returning to normal with good supplies expected over the coming weeks."

Still going strong

Victorian Farmers Federation president, David Jochinke, said agribusiness would continue to operate in his state.

"We understand there are many questions. The simple answer is that we are working to ensure the whole agriculture/agribusiness supply chain remains open and viable," Mr Jochinke said.

"The important thing is that we are all working together to secure the future of our agricultural industry and continuing to produce to feed Victorians during these trying times."

"That supply chain isn't only what comes off the farm and onto stock supermarket shelves, but what goes onto the farm to actually make something grow.

"We must remember that along with the challenges we are now facing there are also opportunities for our industry."

"We have it in our power to show the community just how resilient and reliable agriculture is."

In South Australia, AusvegSA state manager, Jordan Brooke-Barnett, said demand had been akin to the busiest Christmas rush, but was needed after a slow festive season.

"Our summer period wasn't as busy as we thought it would be, possibly due to the bushfires," he said.

Mr Brooke-Barnett said growers were in constant contact with supermarkets and planting up accordingly.

"We are lucky a lot of our crops have fast turnarounds so we are not seeing any major supply issues," he said.

"But there has been some strain on businesses getting the produce out the door."

Adelaide Produce Markets chief executive officer, Angelo Demasi foresaw possible shortages in vegetables that had seasonal limitations, and worried it could continue if the virus hit processing facilities.

"What we need is for consumers to continue to buy fresh produce, but only buy what they need for a week, not over-extend," he said.

"Unfortunately we saw the loss of one of our biggest industries - hospitality - this week, which makes up about 19 per cent of our business," he said.

"Thankfully retail has been covering most of the shortfall in demand, but there could be some debt issues going forward - it is something we need to keep an eye on."

Future challenges to be met

VEGETABLESWA CEO, John Shannon, said 2020 was shaping up to provide a range of significant challenges as well as significant opportunities for the vegetable industry all over again.

"While the bushfire blocking the Eyre Highway has long since passed, I fear we are only at the beginning of dealing with the threat posed by the coronavirus," Mr Shannon said.

"For the vegetable industry there may be limitations on key inputs such as labour, chemicals and fertiliser. There may be influences on demand.

"The upside is that at this stage it looks anecdotally like that demand for fresh Western Australian vegetables has actually increased as the public seeks to improve their health by increasing their consumption of local produce."

Tasmanian Farmers and Graziers Association CEO, Peter Skillern, said the State was well placed with growers at the ready.

"Tasmanians can rest assured that farmers within this State produce more than enough food for every Tasmanian," Mr Skillern said.

"Our food supply situation is strong and Tasmanian Farmers will continue to go about their business producing first quality food for our wonderful State."

Life on shelves

GREENGROCERS have also stepped up their efforts to ensure a "continuous and diverse" supply of safe, high-quality fresh fruit and vegetables.

This includes the restocking of shelves daily and undertaking measures to ensure their stocked produce is safe and of the highest quality.

"Although there is no current evidence that supports the transmission of Covid-19 by food (as stated by European Food Safety Authority), measures are being taken to provide the highest protection for both staff and customers by greengrocers.

"Greengrocers continue to follow strict protocols set by Safe Food Australia, with added safety measures put in place, such as increased efforts to clean and sanitise their shops, thorough and frequent handwashing, and the prevention of food contamination. Precautions such as these are designed to give peace of mind to consumers and ensure the highest level of safety," said Kellaway.

All these efforts will help consumers gain easy access to fruit and vegetables and continue to have a healthy balanced diet throughout the outbreak.