From the fridge back to the farm: How the pandemic is affecting where your food comes from

A good, hard look at the stickers on his food prompted CBC reporter Adam Walsh to make some calls.
Everything in this refrigerator comes from somewhere, and these days is affected to some degree by COVID-19. While production continues on farms, some face a difficult road. (Adam Walsh/CBC)

Have you ever stopped to take a good look in your fridge?

Not a glance, but a full-on gaze at the fruits and vegetables you've got stocked inside … and the little stickers that tell you where things are from.

After a recent grocery day, I stopped and examined the contents of my fridge and I had a few questions.

With COVID-19 hotspots popping up the world over, I wondered this: what's life like back where the produce came from?

Further, what could it mean for us here in Newfoundland and Labrador? 

With stickers in hand, Google and a lot of phone calls, I took a brief North American tour of the start of our supply lines.

Hello, California

"On a daily basis we were wondering if we were just going to go out of business because we couldn't find a way to move all the crop," said Backus Nahas from his office in southern California.

Nahas works at Success Valley Produce, a family-run operation that grows strawberries.

If you've ever bought strawberries at a Dominion store, there's a good chance you've eaten berries from Success Valley Produce.

Strawberries from Success Valley Produce in California. The company is being hit hard by the pandemic but expects to make it through. (Peter Gullage/CBC)

Nahas said the trouble for strawberry growers started back when the pandemic was in full flight and panic buying was escalating. 

People weren't buying strawberries in a panic, mind you. It was other things.

While toilet paper and essentials were flying off the shelves, Nahas said stores were swamped trying to keep up with that demand. Highly perishable products were put on the back burner.

All that business is gone. It's nil.- Backus Nahas

Unable to move his crop, a surplus built up as overseas buyers — and many local ones — stopped buying.

"I've lost all my school business, I've lost all my business to restaurants, people that we sell to that are going to large corporate offices, government buildings — all that business is gone. It's nil," he said.

Nahas said Success Valley Produce used to sell to 80 different customers. The list is down to eight.

One of them is Loblaws, which owns the Dominion brand and numerous other stores across Canada. He credits the chain for helping keep the family business afloat.

Looking ahead, Nahas says as long as companies like Success Valley Produce can come close to breaking even they will survive. Others though, he said, will not.

"In some areas like in northern California, where there's been a historic oversupply, I think you'll see people lose a lot of money. Like millions and millions."

This is an apple blossom on one of Chelan Fresh’s orchards in the state of Washington. The company ships apples all over the world, including to Newfoundland and Labrador. (Chelan Fresh/Submitted by Adam Walsh)

Sharp taste, sour markets

If you head up north from California, you eventually hit the state of Washington, which is where Chelan Fresh grows its green, sharp-tasting Granny Smith apples.

Sales manager Tim Evans said the industry was already in a three-year downturn when the pandemic hit.

"A lot of growers are going to probably not be in business next year," he said. "It's a very, very difficult proposition that we're dealing with right now."

While Chelan Fresh should weather the storm — it's a gigantic company that ships apples all over the world — it's taken a big hit.

Evans said his company's exports are down close to 20 per cent when compared with last year.

"That's a pretty significant number when you have 138 million bushels of apples to sell in a year. It's very impactful," he said.

Tim Evans, sales manager for Chelan Fresh in Washington, says his industry was already in a downturn when the pandemic hit and not all growers will make it through these tough times. (Hill B. Photography/Submitted by Chelan Fresh)

Orange you glad I called? 

Florida oranges have helped keep the province dosed with vitamin C for years, and that's not expected to change.

After calling growers all over the state who said they were busy out tending their crops, I got in touch with the Florida Department of Citrus. Yes, oranges are so important to Florida's economy, there's a state agency responsible for the crop. 

In a statement, it said Canada is the biggest export market for Florida oranges, and that status is expected to continue.

"We have had no interruptions to supply due to the pandemic and expect Canada to continue receiving Florida citrus in the coming year," says the statement. 

Less planting in Ontario 

The last stop of my fridge-back-to-farm tour was in Ontario.

In this case, I was curious to know what will be in my fridge in the future — hopefully, that is. 

Bill George chairs the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association that represents 3,500 families.

It's tough to know where the fresh produce industry will land in these pandemic times. (Robert Short/CBC)

George said because migrant labour was late arriving due to the pandemic, farmers are planting less this year.

That means there could be certain vegetables that won't be on the shelves in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Not only that, but what is there come harvest time could cost more.

"By no means am I trying to press any panic buttons that we're not going to have a food supply but it may lead to some challenges in getting your fresh fruits and vegetables that you're used to getting on a daily basis," he said.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


Adam Walsh

CBC News

Adam Walsh is a CBC journalist. He is the host and producer of the lunchtime radio program The Signal.