Driscoll’s, the world’s largest supplier of fresh berries, expects a record crop of strawberries this year. There will also be lots of blueberries, blackberries and raspberries in the next few months. At any other time, that would be great news, but this isn’t an ordinary year, with quarantined consumers focused on stocking up on longer-lasting foodstuffs — and toilet paper — and less on perishable, short-lived fresh fruit.
The good news: Berries freeze really well.
And Soren Bjorn, president of the Americas for Driscoll’s, thinks the supply chain challenges that he and other growers faced at the beginning of the in the US — just two months ago — are slowly being sorted out enough to keep businesses growing, consumers fed and food waste at a minimum.
“We are learning that we can do things we didn’t know we could do,” Bjorn says from his offices in Watsonville, California, a short drive south of Silicon Valley. “Our food supply chain turned out to be a lot more fragile than any of us thought. That comes from years and years of trying to make it so efficient. When it breaks, there is no capacity to absorb what we need.”
Here’s how things have played out so far. After shelter-in-place orders started rippling through the US, Bjorn says, consumers started “panic buying … everything disappeared from the shelves.” People were also buying berries. But unlike toilet paper or jars of spaghetti sauce, which you can put away for a little while, berries don’t hold up for that long. So while people were buying berries, they weren’t buying that many more.
“By the third week we saw this sort of backlash. The supply chain started breaking down,” Bjorn says. “Retail grocery partners were having a hard time restocking their shelves of all those things that consumers were stocking up on. The highly perishable items got pushed back to the back of the priority list.”
As sales slid, Driscoll’s and other farms had to make the call to leave some food in the fields because it was too costly to pick without any buyers. That decision already factored in regular donations to food banks, he says. Now, as consumers are returning cautiously to stores, he’s optimistic that some, hoping to enjoy spring and the coming summer, will go back to buying berries.
For Driscoll’s, a family-owned business started in the late 1800s, the pandemic has also prompted a rethink of how food gets to distributors. When Safeway, a grocery chain headquartered in California, needed to close its northern California distribution center after workers were found to have the virus, Bjorn and his team figured out how to get their berries to the chain’s individual stores.
“We had trucking companies that had lots of extra capacity because their business had disappeared, and they said, ‘we will do this for you,'” Bjorn says. “The biggest problem was that sometimes we would show up at a store at 4 o’clock in the morning with two pallets of berries, and there wasn’t anybody there. So we had to learn.”
Finding workers to pick berries hasn’t been a problem, and in fact, the company has been hiring. It’s made adjustments, though, to how they harvest the fruit, which includes different shift rotations and more water stations for hand washing.
“We have a lot more people coming in, and right now we are not having difficulty hiring people,” he says. “The key is to keep them safe.”
Those workers have also highlighted another problem that Bjorn would like to see addressed as part of the national rethinking that will hopefully come out of the pandemic: How migrant workers are treated.
“As it applies to our business, we are seeing how broken our immigration system is as it relates to farmworkers. Here are the very people that we are considering essential workers today, and the reality is that most of them don’t have a legal status in this country,” he says. “That is something we as a nation need to reflect on. If we want a secure food system — arguably the greatest security you need to have is to be able to feed yourself — it’s not secure to have an undocumented workforce that is responsible for the harvest of 75% of all the fruits and vegetables that are grown in this country.”
Watch the video above for everything Bjorn told CNET’s Connie Guglielmo.
Now What is a video interview and panel series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers covering the major changes and trends impacting business and how consumers connect in the “new normal” 2020 world and beyond. There will always be change in our world, there will always be technology helping us navigate that change, and we’ll always discuss surprising twists, turns and potential solutions.