How COVID-19’s affecting the Vidalia onion industry
Suppliers of Vidalia onions aren’t exempt from the uncertainty and fear that the new coronavirus COVID-19 is spreading throughout all sectors of life.
“With this new elephant in the room called the coronavirus, nobody has ever seen a situation like this, and there is a ton of uncertainty out there that is really making everyone uneasy,” said Walt Dasher, co-owner of G&R Farms, Glennville, Ga.
“I know without doubt that nobody knows what the future holds for any sector of business.”
But as more people quarantine themselves at home, more people are cooking at home, and that can mean fresh produce if the United Fresh Produce Association’s March 13 message that it’s safe to eat it sinks in with consumers. By that time, there were no clinically confirmed cases of the virus becoming foodborne or transmitted through food, whether packaged or in bulk, according to the association.
“We noticed a big uptick in retail sales; people are stocking up potatoes and onions, a staple for them,” said Dick Thomas, senior vice president of sales at Potandon Produce, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
The company sources Vidalia onions from southern Georgia during the season. The company packs the onions with the nationally known Green Giant label, and that should generate some trust and give retailers carrying them a competitive advantage, he said.
“We don’t know how long that will last. We wonder how this will affect foodservice — they’re a big part of our overall business,” Thomas said, predicting a decrease in foodservice business.
Local governments, such as New York City and others across the country, ordered restaurants to cease dine-in business, allowing only take-out and delivery to keep crowds to a minimum to slow down the contagion’s spread.
Based in Idaho, Potandon is in one of the few U.S. states that had no confirmed COVID-19 cases by March 13, Thomas said, but by the next day, local news reported five confirmed cases, a small number in comparison to Washington and New York, the top two most-infected states.
Potandon advised employees near and far that they can reduce or avoid traveling if they feel uncomfortable doing so, Thomas said.
“A lot of our customers are not allowing visitors anyway, and our employees are equipped to work remotely should the need arise,” Thomas said.
Lauren Dees, sales and marketing manager for Generation Farms, Vidalia, Ga., said by March 13, she wasn’t seeing any change in speed in business.
“We’re obviously paying attention to the news and the community and following any health advisories; we’re following our normal food safety practices, and food safety has always been our No. 1 priority,” Dees said.
Vidalia Onion Committee manager Bob Stafford offered similar sentiments.
“We’re doing whatever the president says to do; our congressmen will watch out for us and we’ll follow official advisements,” Stafford said.
A lot of the Vidalia farmworkers in Georgia are H-2A laborers from Mexico.
“The fear is the pandemic will shut down the border and make labor arrangements tougher, and our warehouses have to scramble to make sure they have help or other arrangements,” he said. “As things change, we’ll adapt.”
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