16 Jun 2020

Vegetable growers looking to accelerate switch to mechanical harvesting due to coronavirus crisis

Due to the coronavirus crisis, vegetable growers and processing companies in countries such as the UK, Spain, Italy and Germany are looking to accelerate their transition to mechanical harvesting. Although the biggest focus is on leafy vegetables, growers of other crops are also interested in increasing the level of automation, according to interviews conducted by vegetable breeding company Rijk Zwaan among its European chain partners.

As Europe emerges from the first phase of the coronavirus crisis, Rijk Zwaan was keen to take stock of the situation. The vegetable breeding company asked its European chain partners – from growers to retailers – about the impact of the crisis on their business and their expectations for the future. The company supplemented the responses with insights from organisations such as Rabobank, Edge by Ascential and Nielsen as well as the expertise of its own crop and market specialists. Rijk Zwaan is sharing all the relevant findings with its customers to help them respond to the changes in the fresh supply chain.

Concerns about labour and economic uncertainty

One of the key changes is the increased focus on switching to mechanical harvesting. This has been intensified by labour-related challenges. European travel restrictions have caused a shortage of seasonal workers and social distancing is not possible in many horticultural work environments. Both of these factors have resulted in extra costs in the fresh supply chain. According to Rijk Zwaan’s research, labour is proving to be a particular problem for growers and processing companies in the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy, and it is also an issue in the organic sector. Many chain partners in Europe are not only concerned about labour, but also about a possible recession – especially due to the uncertainty about its severity and duration and how it will affect the demand for fruit and vegetables.

High demand for commodity vegetables

It’s not all bad news, however. According to the retailers and wholesalers interviewed by Rijk Zwaan, sales of fruit and vegetables increased by an average of 20% to 40% during the lockdown. During the panic-buying phase, so-called commodity vegetables and products with a long shelf life – such as iceberg lettuce, peppers, tomatoes on the vine and frozen spinach – were in particularly high demand. There was a temporary dip in demand for vegetable specialties, ‘on the go’ salads and melons, partly caused by the sudden collapse of foodservice sales, but these products gradually recovered. Having initially reduced their number of stock keeping units (SKUs), retailers indicate that these are returning to previous levels now that the European lockdown situation is easing.

Heightened interest in fresh and healthy

The study identifies future opportunities for the entire fresh supply chain. There has been a significant increase in consumer interest in fresh and healthy home cooking, and people actively searched for new recipe ideas during the lockdown. The Love My Salad consumer platform attracted three times as many visitors as normal and an aubergine booklet achieved a huge number of downloads. During the coronavirus outbreak, media channels regularly highlighted the importance of a healthy lifestyle and the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables. Research by Rabobank predicts that ‘fresh & healthy’ and ‘home cooking’ will both remain important consumer trends in the future, as will ‘local for local’ and new sales channels such as online and recipe box schemes.

Consumer growth in online, local and organics

Unsurprisingly, online sales peaked during the coronavirus lockdown; European retailers saw increases of 30% to 50% in their online channels. At times, grocery chains – and also suppliers of home-delivery box schemes – struggled to keep up with demand. There was a general rise in locally grown and organic produce, sometimes straight from the farmer. This was partly because consumers took a keener interest in product origins and cultivation methods, and partly due to their desire to support local businesses. Experts predict that some of the extra sales from the online channel, box schemes and local/organic produce will be sustained after the crisis.

Sharing with chain partners

Rijk Zwaan is sharing these and other findings with its chain partners on a one-to-one basis to help them capitalise on new opportunities together. The vegetable breeding company also offers various solutions, such as Salanova® Teenleaf for mechanical harvesting, promotion of inspiring ideas for home cooking with vegetables, and vegetables that are ideal for box schemes thanks to their smaller size or longer shelf life. 

Stronger Together

Rijk Zwaan is committed to supporting growers and partners in their efforts to produce, distribute and/or process fruit and vegetables. Based on the very latest market insights, we aim to help the vegetable food chain to adapt to the ‘new economy’ by providing customised, relevant and applicable advise and solutions. www.rijkzwaan.com/stronger-together