NCW — A few weeks ago, it seemed like grocery stores couldn’t keep products on their shelves and that business was great for the food industry.
But a lot of products — including tree fruit — are hurting during the COVID-19 pandemic and prices are down, said Chris McGann, state Department of Agriculture spokesman. There are many reasons for this, according to McGann, including reduced demand from closed restaurants, restrictions on exports and more.
“Growers in every section are facing significant challenges when it comes to protecting their workers and having access to export markets and impacts on demand due to all the restaurants being closed,” he said.
But the tree fruit industry faces unique challenges compared to other industries, said John DeVaney, Washington State Tree Fruit Association president.
When quarantine orders first started to go into effect in the third week of March, the industry saw a peak in shipments of apples, he said. But it has since seen a sharp decrease in that trend as people, now with pantries full, try to stay home.
The pandemic is also changing how apples are being sold, according to a tree fruit association report. Customers are buying more bagged apples and in larger quantities, due to the desire to make fewer trips to the grocery store and spend less time shopping.
But unlike the potato industry, tree fruit isn’t being as impacted by the closure of restaurants, since the fruit tends to go straight to the supermarket, DeVaney said.
The industry, though, is facing a lot of challenges from ongoing trade wars, he said.
India has about a 70% tariff on apples right now in retaliation for U.S. tariffs and China also has retaliatory tariffs, making it near impossible to sell in those markets, according to the tree fruit association report.
It is a challenge, because the fruit grown for foreign markets can’t just now be sold in the United States, DeVaney said. For example, Chinese customers tend to like large, expensive luxury cherries that American consumers are not as interested in buying.
Another problem the industry faces is a lack of refrigeration, McGann said. Trade imbalances are causing refrigerated cargo units to stack up on the other side of the Pacific Ocean in Asian markets.
All of this is further hampered by last year’s reduction in the value of tree fruit, DeVaney said. Apples and pears flooded the market last year with greater supply than there was demand, suppressing prices.
Government agencies may also mandate new rules in regards to agricultural worker housing that reduces the labor pool, DeVaney said. The federal government may also institute restrictions on crossing at the border as well that could impact H-2A visas for foreign ag workers.