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Q&A with CPMA President Ron Lemaire

We talked with Ron Lemaire, President of the Canadian Produce Marketing Association BB #:153602, Ottawa, Ontario, in late 2020 for the Produce Blueprints Canada Supplement to the January/February 2021 issue.

Tell us about 2020 and the impact of Covid-19.
It’s such a different year compared to any other. We started using a new artificial intelligence (AI) tool in December 2019, and the tool was great in identifying consumer sentiment and attitudes around different areas of produce.

At the beginning of 2020, we saw some conversations and opinions around single packaging and ongoing interest in price, quality, organics, and local product. The single packaging was ramping up—it was a carryover from 2019, which is why we got so involved in the plastic packaging discussion.

As Covid began to ramp up around the North American market, especially in Canada, we began seeing a trend of certain product lines gaining momentum and others shifting into different consumption behaviors.

We saw the real impact hit when the markets shut down: we saw panic buying, which was driving sales around stable items in produce, items that could be stored. We saw shifts away from some convenience items—core items traditionally supporting school lunches—such as baby cucumbers or blueberries and grapes.

Although fresh produce saw solid growth, about 5 to 7 percent, at the beginning of the pandemic, it was narrow in commodity, so there were winners and losers. The biggest losers were in foodservice; overnight we saw zero sales in foodservice.

The retail industry did a fabulous job of supporting what they could by trying to procure product that couldn’t be sent to foodservice but could be repurposed, repackaged, and redistributed into the retail channels.

There was benefit there, but overall, there was still a lot of product that couldn’t find a home. The rebound started by summer, when restaurants and foodservice realized there were opportunities to create curbside pickup or delivery. We saw a slow 30 percent to 50 percent to 75 percent recovery, but the damage was done.

Canada has been successful in reducing its use of plastic, but it’s back…
Plastics saw a resurgence because of Covid and concerns over safety, but sustainability rules are still important. The move toward naked or unpackaged food, which we started to see at the beginning of 2020, slowed.

People were asking to have plastic bags in grocery stores again and to make sure produce was packaged in a way so people weren’t touching it. But this was temporary—the Canadian government has come out with new targets for banning single-use plastics, and we’re looking at recycling systems in Canada to deal with plastic waste.

So, it came quickly, was short-lived, and we’re now seeing the market come back to where we were in 2019—back to looking at the impact of plastics on the environment and how our sector is addressing it.

How did local produce fare during the pandemic?
During Covid, local produce has been a big winner. Food security and food sovereignty were two significant discussions through the beginning of the pandemic and still today.

Canadians were looking to support local because there’s such an economic impact to so many sectors across our entire supply chain and our market. While there’s been a drive for local in Canada, fresh produce is very seasonal. We live in a four-season country, and although this may have pushed our shoulder season, it also deals with availability.

What about the labor shortage?
Labor shortages have been a problem during Covid. We didn’t have the foreign workers we needed to effectively plant and harvest traditional volumes, so there have been shorts across various commodities.

Growers had only about 76 percent of their temporary foreign workforce in Canada in 2020. This was already below 2019’s numbers—20 to 30 percent less than what was needed—so it was fairly significant.

Growers did a great job of meeting what demand they could, and in some cases it helped in price because almost all products were tight. While this maintained a good price for growers, it came at a cost because PPE [personal protective equipment] had to be purchased, and they had to make changes in their production lines and other areas.

How have trade and exports been affected?
On the export side, China is everybody’s target market these days. Because of Covid, there were import requirements, restrictions on travel, and a shift in the number of commercial flights—which in many cases ship blueberries, cherries, and other products to China.

There was a massive readjustment in export strategies to meet local demand, and also prices were good in Canada and North America, which was positive. It was a significant change compared to traditional exports, to the point where some commodities shipped half the volume in 2020 as compared to 2019.

Any predictions for this year?
Ecommerce is driving online business—and this won’t disappear. We’re seeing a shift to ecommerce we didn’t expect for another five to seven years. This shift has been an extremely positive opportunity for our market.

The online shopping model has expanded beyond millennials to Baby Boomers and a range of different demographics who are shopping online because they feel safer, they’re more comfortable with the quality, and they find the convenience is outstanding.

Forecasting ahead, we’ll see this grow. It will remain steady for the coming year and we should, if we do it right, see opportunities for growth as we move through different waves of Covid.

When we go into season in Canada, there will continue to be a high demand for local produce. The key now is to ensure exporters know Canada is a destination of choice. The market continues to demand these products, and if there’s an issue with transportation, we have to make sure these products aren’t shipped elsewhere.

These will be the key business decisions the supply chain will have to navigate to ensure suppliers can provide the exotic products we can’t grow here Canada. All of these products will be essential.

The broadening global market in the pandemic is interesting—it will be exciting to see 2021 unfold.