Organic sector pivots to a new reality as it keeps supply chain filled and workers safe

The world was unexpectedly and quickly transformed with the outbreak of the coronavirus COVID-19. Pantry buying. Stockpiling staples. Grocery deliveries. Online farmers’ markets with curbside pickup. Baking our own bread. Three meals a day at home. Such has been our new daily life since the onset of the pandemic.

As the pandemic spread across the nation, the Organic Trade Association reached out to its members with resources and practical solutions to cope with the virus. We asked our members to report back to us on how the crisis was impacting them, and what was working and not working in their operations.  What we found was a resilient supply chain quickly moving into high gear to keep organic products in our grocery aisles and other food channels. Some operations were struggling more than others were, but the dedication to do the ultimate best to ensure a plentiful food supply was seen throughout the organic chain. 

Growers worked around the clock in their fields, processors restructured their plant schedules, and retailers busily restocked in-store supplies as well as filling new on-line and curbside pickup or delivery orders. New safety procedures were in place on the farms, in the warehouses and the plants, and in the grocery aisles. Even as the organic supply chain struggled with how to plan for something never before experienced, from the farm to the grocery store, practices were adapted to keep our pantries and refrigerators stocked, and our families safe.

“The coronavirus pandemic has caused major upheavals in all of our lives and work, and in the organic sector. But the one sure thing we’ve been able to count on is the resiliency of the organic community,” said Organic Trade Association CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha.

“The entire organic supply chain has toiled nonstop to meet the needs of consumers in this crisis,” said Batcha. “It’s pivoted to keep its workers safe, find new markets, and increase its output. And while doing that, organic businesses gave raises to their employees, contributed food to their communities, and donated money for essential safety gear.”

Spreading out – and going all out - in organic produce fields

Grimmway Farms is the biggest grower of organic carrots in the world, with over 40,000 acres of organic carrots and 64 other types of produce in seven states. To keep up with the sudden increase in demand for its products, Grimmway almost immediately ramped up to a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week work schedule to maintain field operations and fill its retail orders.

“We have a special responsibility in these times to continue operations as we face this crisis,” said Jeff Huckaby, president of Grimmway Farms.

Huckaby said although the company’s workforce was adequate, the workplace policy changes to ensure employee safety were having a huge impact on operations. “Employees inside of the facilities and in the field are now spread out, and their schedules are being rotated in order to maintain the safest possible work environment.”

Homegrown Organic Farms works with over 80 different organic produce growers who farm a total of more than 4,000 acres. Its operations also include cold storage facilities and shipping departments, marketing and sales teams. In Homegrown’s words, it’s a “family of companies.”

“The biggest impact has been trying to keep our employees safe and continue in our operations so that the supply chain doesn’t break down and we have the product,” said Homegrown Organic CEO Scott Mabs. “Everyone from the fields to the packing plants to the distribution teams are in our supply chain, so we’re trying to keep all of them as safe as we can.”

Putting up barriers between packers on a line, managing when and how people take lunch breaks, checking temperatures as workers enter a facility, carefully scheduling crews to avoid contact were some of the safety measures taken by Homegrown.

Both Grimmway and Homegrown saw dramatic jumps in sales at the early onset of the pandemic. Mabs estimates that their sales jumped at least 20 percent, and Huckaby noted that retail orders rose so much that if it weren’t for bigger than expected yields this year, Grimmway’s supplies may have fallen short of demand.

Even as these organic produce growers worked feverishly to meet demand, they found time to help their communities. Grimmway donated hundreds of boxes of fresh carrots and carrot snack packs to California food banks, and hospitals and clinics in its headquarter town of Bakersfield, and established pop-up grocery stores on campuses of local hospitals with donated produce to give hospital workers easy safe access to healthy food. Homegrown stepped up its donations to the local food bank in Porterville, as well as to area churches and other relief efforts. Both Grimmway and Homegrown, along with more a dozen other produce companies, contributed to a mass donation organized by the Organically Grown Company, resulting in more than 46,000 pounds of organic fruits and vegetables going to hundreds of thousands of Northwest residents negatively impacted by COVID-19.  

Organic dairy and egg companies accelerating to meet demand

Organic dairy and egg companies have seen big increases in retail demand for their products since the onset of the pandemic, and processing plants are running at record levels to meet that demand. As safety precautions were implemented on the farms, life and work have continued in the dairy barns and hen houses.

Stonyfield Organic reported a large increase in demand for bulk-size items like its large cup tubs and multipack pouches. Sales for its Stonyfield Kids multipack pouches are currently more than 20 percent over last year, and large cups up almost 16 percent. Organic Valley has been redirecting milk intended for foodservice to retail and concentrating on its core products. It reported an increase in its single-serve, shelf-stable milk, as well as a jump in its online business. Both companies had given their plant employees a $2 per hour wage increase while their processing output stayed accelerated.

Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs partners with 120 family farms in 13 states for its products. Jesse Laflamme, owner and CEO of Pete and Gerry’s, said his company experienced a 20 percent increase in sales in the early stages of the pandemic, and that for the first time in its history, the company was having to set specific purchase limits for its customers.

Extra safety measures were in place throughout the organic dairy and egg industry. Organic farms were advised on best safety practices, production lines were safely spaced, Plexiglas dividers were installed to separate work areas, employees who could were working from home, and the small number of employees who came down with the virus were quickly isolated, preventing any spread.

“COVID-19 has undoubtedly been a challenge, but our dedicated employees and farmer-members have showcased what a great group of people can do together,” said Adam Warthesen, Director of Government and Industry Affairs for Organic Valley.

Again, supporting those in need was a priority. Stonyfield donated over 580,000 cups of yogurt to area hospitals and food banks, and Organic Valley donated 1,600 protective facemasks and 700 protective gloves to local hospitals, fire departments, and others on the frontline, and over 140,000 pounds of food to food pantries across the country. Pete and Gerry’s donated and delivered thousands of cartons of eggs to schools whose at-home students were receiving meal care packages delivered by school buses, and to churches and other businesses distributing eggs to needy populations.

Replacing lost markets and lost incomes

Georgia Organics has provided support for the state’s organic farmers for going on 50 years, and its commitment to help producers and connect organic food from Georgia’s farmers to Georgia’s families has never been more apparent than during this pandemic. The member-supported nonprofit has provided direct financial aid to farmers, helped farmers reach consumers, and is filling the food gap for thousands of out-of-work food service employees with healthy organic produce from local farms.

“We are scrambling to make sure farmers can benefit from funded opportunities to provide product for prepped meals or farm box shares for healthcare workers on the frontline, unemployed restaurant workers or other vulnerable/high risk communities,” said Alice Rolls, president and CEO of Georgia Organics. “Our job is to make sure food is not left on the farm when demand for fresh, immune-building food is so high.”

Two of the most impactful programs to help farmers weather the impacts of COVID-19 being managed by Georgia Organics have been The Farmer Fund and the Farm to Restaurant programs.

The Farmer Fund was established in 2015 to help Georgia’s small and organic famers deal with unpredictable natural disasters. At the outset of the pandemic, Georgia Organics partnered with other state organizations to raise funds for COVID-19 specific financial relief within The Farmer Fund. In May, the fund provided $1,000 COVID-19 relief stipends to 59 farmers, and more aid applications are being accepted.

Georgia Organics’ Farm to Restaurant program works to bring local farmers and chefs together to increase sustainable and organic purchasing by Georgia restaurants. The organization pivoted abruptly when the virus broke out to continue creating revenue opportunities for farmers losing their restaurant customers, and one of the results was the Food Fight GA project. This project has made possible over $60,000 in direct food purchasing from farms in ten weeks while providing over 2,000 produce boxes to food insecure restaurant workers and closing the gap in lost restaurant sales for the partner farms during this pandemic.  

Pivoting from truckloads of flour to bags

Miller Milling Company provides more than a dozen kinds of organic and non-organic flours used in breads and cakes to pastas and tortillas. Its customers are normally a mix of institutional -- restaurants and big bakers -- and retail. Institutional customers buy their flour in bulk, by the 50,000-pound truckload. Retail customers buy bagged flour. The coronavirus shifted overnight Miller’s business to almost all retail.

“We have no issues in wheat supply in both organic and conventional, but because so much of our business  suddenly changed from bulk to bagged flour, it put a real strain on capacity at the mills,” said John Larkin, flour sales manager for Miller.

The operation has four bag-packaging lines in two of their mills. Larkin said these mills normally run at 70 percent capacity. When the pandemic hit and demand for bagged flour soared, Miller was quick to ramp up its operations. By mid-April, its two mills with bag-packing lines were running around the clock and every day at 100 percent capacity to fill its retail orders.

To mitigate the threat of the virus infecting a large number of its 300-plus employees, Miller reduced the number of employees at the mills at any one time, working with smaller, rotating crews. The company had not had to lay off any employees. Several months into the pandemic, the company was able to report no serious disruptions due to workforce issues, which Larkin greatly attributed to the safety measures put into place.

And as its mills pumped the flour out, Miller’s also shared its product with those in need. Its mills in California, Virginia and Texas were donating flour to help provide meals to frontline workers and to bread companies making bread donations to food banks, while bags of flour were given to employees for their family kitchens.

Keeping the distribution chain filled, and its employees safe

The iconic Earl’s Organic Produce in San Francisco partners with over 300 growers to provide a huge variety of organic fruits and vegetables every day of the year. Working out of a 30,000-square-foot warehouse, its 100-plus employees receive products from midnight to noon, and load the trucks that ship out the products from noon on.

While the company saw a “massive decline” in their food service customers due to the pandemic, the bulk of Earl’s customers are retail and home delivery services, and Jonathan Kitchens, buyer for Earl’s, said that demand had been great. Kitchens reported that after an initial panic wave of buying, sales settled down to about 10 percent above normal levels. He noted some “spotty” supply issues, but that most of their growers were managing to keep up.  

Earl’s imports some of its produce -- bananas from Ecuador, a variety of produce from Mexico – but had not seen any major disruptions in shipments.

“Our biggest concern is ensuring everyone’s safety,” said Kitchens. “Anyone who can work remote at Earl’s is, but we still need at least half of our employees at the warehouse.”

Kitchens said that all of the processes of receiving produce, separating it into orders, loading up the trucks and sending it out had been staggered in order to maintain safe distancing. Every member of a crew had fresh gloves, face masks, was doing constant handwashing, and being closely monitored. Even with these new measures in place, Kitchen said there had been no slowdown in their receiving and loading processes.

The staff at Earl’s also found time to coordinate donations of organic produce throughout the delivery area in Northern California. Kitchens estimated that since April 1, Earl’s has donated over 90 tons of organic produce to food banks, community kitchens and small grocery retailers.

Organic grocery stores providing food and solace

Mark Squire, president of organic grocer Good Earth Natural Foods, thinks that good informed communication with his customers in these uncertain times is almost as important as keeping his two stores in Marin County, California, stocked and safe.

“We’ve always been close to our community,” said Squire. “My staff is really on the frontline; we’re in contact with the public. There are people who have legitimate concerns and others who are just scared. We’re being honest and saying we’re doing everything we can, and trying to be a source of stability in our community.”

Squire said during the days of “hoard buying,” sales were double the normal level, and that the whole center of the store was wiped out. By mid-July, stocks were back in good shape, and fresh produce sales were still “through the roof.” The number of in-store shoppers was being limited to 40 at any one time, masks and gloves were required of all employees and masks of all shoppers, aisles were one-way only, and Plexiglas shields had been installed at cash registers.

The stores also launched an online sales program early on, which customers took to immediately. From one employee in each store being assigned to the online sales department when it first started, by mid-summer there were 6-8 employees per store working in the online service area. In addition to the orders being picked up in the stores’ parking lots, a delivery service also had been established.

Good Earth opted to use electric bikes, not delivery trucks, for delivery, and for good reason. Squires explains: “We went with electric bikes to be more environmentally friendly. We also wanted to create jobs for local kids. Our bikes now take 6 to 8 crates of food on a trailer, and can deliver to a half dozen or more customers.”

Organic non-food sector steps up – from T-shirts and mattresses to face masks

In early 2020, Los Angeles-based UStrive became the first and only vertical clothing manufacturer in North America to be certified to both the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and Textile Exchange's Organic Content Standard (OCS). Enter the coronavirus epidemic, and UStrive switched from making T-shirts and fleece wear, and dresses and shirts to FDA-approved surgical and general-use face masks.

What happened to enable that transition was a whirlwind of activity over just a few days, said Scott Wilson, president of UStrive. First, an email blast going out to the apparel industry with contacts if they wanted to retool operations for the coronavirus fight. Then a call from UStrive to Kaiser Permanente health care company. Next, development of a face mask and tests by the FDA. Finally, approval by the FDA and a contract with Kaiser.  

UStrive did a quick pivot, and soon was turning out 150,000 face masks a week for doctors in Kaiser’s network, and for nurses, healthcare workers and other first responders. By late June, UStrive had produced and shipped more than 1.2 million masks for Kaiser, as well as 500,000 medical gowns that are lightweight, waterproof and more breathable than traditional ones. They’d reopened four sewing facilities that had been closed, and UStrive’s employee force rose from around 110 to around 350.

And other organic companies stepped up. Three organic mattress and bedding makers -- Naturepedic, White Lotus Home and Avocado Green Mattress – switched a good part of their normal production to GOTS certified organic cotton washable face masks for the public.  All three companies were providing them at cost, rather than for profit.

Resilience and compassion throughout the organic supply chain

The stories of resilience and compassion permeate the entire organic supply chain. The organic grains farmer in Nebraska who planted and forward-contracted almost 1,000 acres of different grades of organic corn, and still took time to help a neighbor whose son was quarantined after being exposed to the virus, or the New Jersey organic granola maker who regularly sets aside a “carton or two” of her granola to donate to a local food panty while filling new orders for her product. The countless examples show a supply chain fully engaged in its business and with its communities.  

The country is slowly “reopening” now, but for more than three months, we’ve been stay-at-home households. The food we’re purchasing and preparing for our families is not just a source of nutrition, but of comfort and security. Consumers have flocked to the Organic label for their home cooking. Consumers want the cleanest, highest quality food and products for their families in these stressful times, and organic has delivered.

“Resiliency is defined as the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change. Organic exemplifies that definition,” said Organic Trade Association’s Batcha. “Organic is the answer to so many consumer concerns--a safe place in a time of enormous uncertainty.” //

Maggie McNeil is Director of Media Relations for the Organic Trade Association (