Jan Nowakowski, Dominika Kozarzewska, Dominik Wozniak

Pictured left to right: Jan Nowakowski (Genesis Fresh), Dominika Kozarzewska (Polskie Jagody), Dominik Wozniak (Rajpol)

Fruitnet speaks exclusively to three fresh produce leaders in Poland, Jan Nowakowski of Genesis Fresh, Dominik Wozniak of Rajpol and Dominika Kozarzewska of Polskie Jagody and the Polish Berry Cooperative, to see how the country’s fresh produce business is adapting to the global coronavirus outbreak.

How has the coronavirus outbreak directly outbreak affected your company and its operations?

Dominik Wozniak: We started to observe the situation with Covid-19 around the time of Fruit Logistica at the beginning of February. At that time things looked like they were under control, but day-by-day, as we received more information from other European countries – for example Italy – we started worrying. By the end of February, it was clear that situation was very serious and we must be prepared for unexpected cases.

By mid-March when the Polish government shut down schools and other restrictions were introduced, Polish citizens started to shop differently and build stocks of food, which included apples. Our apple sakes exploded for three days, and then after that were very calm for a few days. Now, after one month, we can say that the situation is stabilising, and despite some purchasing restrictions at supermarkets sales of apples are on a good level.

Dominika Kozarzewska: Our office staff , in the main, work remotely outside of the season, so transitioning to full online work was not a challenge.

In terms of farm labour, we were very worried at first, due to the closing of borders and the very uncertain situation. It now seems that new options in this scope are emerging, such as foreign and possibly some Polish workers being willing to transfer from other sectors to agriculture.

There were initial uncertainties about supply of fertilisers and plant protection products, but this has now normalised.

Jan Nowakowski: The market needs to adapt and respond to new situations accordingly. For a start, we are following government restrictions and adhering to changes in terms of our organisation and operations.

The company is running smoothly, adjusting to the dynamic situation. Most orders are covered regularly and without delays. Not meeting with new clients and postponing new contracts are the things that needed to be altered. Our top priority is keeping our existing partners on a good track, and not losing any business while this is going on.

What steps have you taken to overcome the challenges that Covid-19 has created, and what positive stories have come out of your efforts?

DW: Firstly we secured the necessary equipment for our workers like gloves and sanitising liquids. We have created ways of working more safely, which means wider distance between people on the packing line and one-hour breaks between shifts to deep-clean and sanitise. Most of our office now works at home, and that increases costs.

DK: We have introduced additional hygienic measures and work procedures, and re-trained all staff. For example, we physically separated work posts where the minimum distance cannot always be kept.

I would say that a positive outcome of the Covid-19 crisis for us is that everybody has realised that food safety measures and procedures, which are sometimes regarded by employees as superfluous or red tape, are in fact of crucial importance for human health and sometimes even life.

JN: Not only have we adapted to these new circumstances and a new world, but we can see supply chains have also been adjusting to changing markets and demands.

We are well prepared for any requests from our clients. More online support has been provided, and we have all become more agile, with remote work allowing us to stay in constant touch with customers to fulfil their ongoing demands.

How has the wider fresh produce market been affected in Poland?

DW: Right now the biggest problems are workers in packhouses, and soon there will be problems in the fields. Most of people working in agriculture are from Ukraine, and at the end of March the Ukrainian government decided to close borders, with a lot of people deciding to go back home. To avoid this situation we decided to raise salaries around 8 per cent with immediate effect, and thanks to this we have kept our warehouse running well.

Of course, all these restrictions and higher salaries influence the price of the final product. I think it is a pity that supermarkets don’t’ want to help with these costs, as they have frozen prices both for suppliers and in-store. On television you can see a lot of advertising creating good PR, about how supermarkets are working hard to ensure stocks of food and other goods in shops, but the fact is they don’t care about suppliers. We, as suppliers, are also working hard and facing problems – but nobody sees that!

Meanwhile, in couple of days the first strawberries will be ready for picking, and growers are really worried about workers – who will pick the fruit?

DK: The strawberry season is just starting in Poland, so we are yet to see how the pandemic is going to affect the demand for fresh fruit. The problem is that people are used to buying strawberries and other fresh produce at farmers markets, which are now closed or slowly reopening opening. Also, going shopping once per week rather than daily will not have a positive impact on sales.

However, we are not just idly waiting and watching. As part of the ‘Time for Polish Superfruits’ PR campaign, Polish growers are educating consumers on how soft fruit can boost their immune system. Because the first National Survey on Fruit and Vegetable Consumption is taking place this year, we are going to have monthly fresh produce consumption data.

JN: Depending on each organisation, everybody in the business is working to adjust to the new rules. Some companies are completely closed, while some are working part-time and trying to keep up with demand.

Naturally, the labour force has been reduced due to closed borders and more restrictions, and we are all facing shortage of short-time labour. Obviously, in the long run, we will be facing more and more challenges that will require ad hoc shifts in operations. We have already taken action to protect our organisation so it runs without delays.

What efforts have been made in Poland to ensure that supply chains for fruit and vegetables remain operational? What other help is being provided?

DK: The biggest challenge for most fruit and vegetable producers is the labour, and so far the government has not done much to mitigate the problem, believing that it will ‘solve itself’ with growing unemployment.

DW: The Polish government has introduced some bailout measures for companies in general including growers, also but at this stage it is not certain exactly what all of those measures will look like.

JN: The government is offering support for companies, like delaying tax payment or giving subsidies to employee wages. The fruit and vegetable supply chain is enduring turbulence, but it’s running – some other industries like hotels and restaurants are closed. There are changing habits for online shopping and home deliveries which is a positive thing. We all count on coming back to normal, a return to regular business. Hopefully, things will get better in few weeks.

Countries all over the world are dealing with coronavirus. Most are following common rules and trying to reduce the number of infected people. The Polish government is taking all the precautions, encouraging society to stay home so that the situation does not deteriorate for the healthcare sector as well as the country’s economy.