The good news for horticulture and crop science graduate student Omar Gonzalez Benitez is that the strawberries are still dying. The bad news is that the industry might be going with them.
Gonzalez Benitez is a Cal Poly masters candidate who is researching strawberry diseases, and measures success in dead strawberries. Gonzalez Benitez is also an essential worker at the horticulture unit, where students grow produce like carrots, squash and kale to sell to the San Luis Obispo community. Gonzalez and his colleagues are considered essential because the horticulture unit requires daily work and attention to remain operational, and an extended period of stagnation could have permanent effects on the crops. Gonzalez Benitez also remained on campus to continue his research on the strawberry diseases Macrophomina phaseolina, Verticillium dahliae, and Colletotrichum acutatum.
“I have to finish my project, and I want to finish my project,” Gonzalez Benitez said. “I knew that if I left I wouldn’t be able to come back,” Gonzalez Benitez said, after President Armstrong announced that students who left San Luis Obispo during the quarantine would not be allowed back on campus.
The Cal Poly Strawberry Center was created in 2013 as a lab for students and a research facility that could provide valuable data to the strawberry industry. According to the director of the Center, plant pathologist Dr. Gerald Holmes, the center receives the majority of its funding and grants from the strawberry industry.
“If the strawberry industry is seriously impacted, so are we,” Holmes said.
The funds from the strawberry industry, as well as United States Department of Agriculture grants, have been largely unaffected by the pandemic so far, and the Strawberry Center has not encountered any revenue issues. Despite this, the staff at the Center has had to adapt the way they operate to comply with COVID-19 safety regulations and to account for a diminished labor force, according to Dr. Holmes.
The strawberry industry as a whole has not fared as well financially as the Strawberry Center, said Dr. John Lin, the production and automation manager for the Center and a joint employee of the California Strawberry Commission, which represents the California strawberry industry.
Below, Lin, Holmes, who has been the Center’s director since its inception, and Gonzalez Benitez, who has worked at the center for the past two years, share their thoughts on the impacts coronavirus has had on the Strawberry Center, and the industry at large.
A Q&A with Dr. John Lin, Dr. Gerald Holmes & Omar Gonzales Benitez
How has the pandemic affected operations at the Strawberry Center?
Holmes: It has affected our ability to work because we rely a lot on student labor. We were in a very important time in our yearly cycle where we need a lot of help, we need a lot of labor, we need a lot of people to do the work. We didn’t have those people so a lot of that work fell to our employees and people had to step up to take care of the gaps.
Fortunately we didn’t have to stop. We weren’t asked to stop our operation because we are an agricultural entity, which is considered essential. And we’re also doing research that’s considered essential because you cannot postpone what you’re doing.
Gonzalez Benitez: Our thing is not selling the berries, it’s more for research. I want plants to die. I infect them with a disease so I want them to die. My plots are like half empty because a lot of the plants are dead, so that’s pretty good for me.
What is being done at the Strawberry Center to keep people safe from COVID-19?
Holmes: With regards to COVID-19 we’re doing what people should be doing which is washing hands frequently and practicing social distancing, which is pretty easy to do in the field… And food safety concerns are always paramount. There’s been work done showing that produce is not really a vehicle for spreading things like coronavirus.
Gonzalez Benitez: When I go into lab I sanitize the door handles inside and out and then after I leave I sanitize them inside and out. That something we didn’t do before. I always wear gloves in lab but now I wear a mask.
Lin: In the field we’ve been implementing social distancing. A lot of growers have already implemented increased hygiene and increased social distancing. Some are taking more precautions to provide workers the safety of not having to come to work if they feel unwell or anything of that sort. We were actually one of the early [industries] to do that in the commodities sector. We started implementing these [measures] before the shelter in place.
From the commission standpoint we have an education team that goes up and down the major districts… and we train growers on how to implement these social distancing, hygiene, and worker safety measures and mental health measures.
How has the pandemic affected the strawberry industry at large?
Holmes: The biggest concern was whether or not labor would be affected. We have a lot of what’s called H2A worker visa labor that comes in from Latin America and we thought that [coronavirus] might prevent that from coming in. But it didn’t, not yet anyway, and I don’t think it will. If that were to happen it would really be a blow to all of agriculture.
The demand for strawberries is down because food services are basically zero what they once were so restaurants, catering events, these sorts of things, none of them are happening. This time of year strawberries are in really high demand usually and I think retail sales are down, I don’t know the exact number, but they are down maybe 10 to 20 percent. As a whole, as an industry, [sales] could be down as much as 20 to 30 percent, and that’s a big blow.
Lin: I would say the main deal would be retail. Food services, general restaurants or etcetera, those sales have been pretty significantly depressed. As a whole about 10 percent of strawberries have been declined due to a lack of restaurant sales.
If a company is heavily invested in specifically fruits for restaurant sales they’re more impacted than those who focus purely on grocery stores or other sorts of retail.
Gonzalez Benitez: I’ve heard that because of the pandemic it’s not doing too well. I see the workers still out there. I know that for strawberries we don’t have too much labor because of how intense it is physically. I know labor shortage has been a big issue these past years.
What does the future look like for the Strawberry Center and the industry at large?
Holmes: You think about how people come to work, and whether or not they’re sick when they come to work. I think there’s going to be a lot more concern about, lets say its not coronavirus, lets say its the average cold. This is unprecedented in my lifetime that people cared if you had a cold. If you felt fine and had a little sniffle, people would take an antihistamine or a decongestant and go to work. I don’t think people are going to do that anymore.”
As far as us as a center and in our basic functioning no, I don’t think it will affect us.I think we will continue to do research and education that helps further this industry.
Lin: I think in general what this has really put to the forefront of people’s attention is if it adds another risk when you are dependent on a human element. So I think there is going to be a push, we’re already seeing it in the retail stores and the grocery stores and warehouses, where there’s going to be a push towards more automation, more mechanization to try to alleviate some of this logistic strain.
Gonzalez Benitez: It could affect it pretty harshly if we are not able to take care of the crops. It’s essential to each year be able to produce data because it helps the industry grow. I hope it doesn’t change much and we are still able to work.
For the time being the Strawberry Center remains open, and strawberries are still for sale through the Center’s website. The industry is managing its surplus as usual, through existing processing channels such as “jams and jellies and syrups and frozen fruit, that sort of thing,” according to Dr. Holmes. Strawberries are only one piece of the agricultural commodity market, but by examining the financial and operational impacts the coronavirus pandemic has had on this one industry, we can get an idea of how truly far reaching the implications of this disease are.