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Coronavirus: Local food processing businesses are booming

What do applesauce, chicken, French fries and eggs all have in common? All are comfort foods and, as a result of the COVID-19-fuelled panic to stock our shelves and freezers, a number of our local agri-food businesses now considered essential services are experiencing an increase in demand for these grocery items — leading to fresh hires and extended hours. For Leahy Orchards, Maison Russet, and Les Fermes Valens, the coronavirus pandemic has meant a significant shift in operations at their facilities.

Leahy Orchards has been proactive about crisis management. A special team has been in place for two years that meets on a monthly basis to create general procedures to mitigate a simulated crisis situation. And while global pandemic was never the subject of a simulation, the company has been able to work from the foundation built by the crisis management team to keep up with the demands put in place by strict government regulations and concerns for employee health and safety. “We are fully committed to doing everything in our power to ensure a safe working environment while responding to what our government and our customers are asking of us,” says Dane Leahy, sales and business development coordinator. According to Leahy, the company (based in Franklin Centre) is prepared to share with other businesses the procedures they have put in place, and certain resources as well.

As such, the company has instituted heightened sanitation practices, including the cleaning of common surfaces every two hours, and the cleaning of tools and equipment as they change hands throughout the day. Employees are encouraged to wash their hands frequently and new wash stations and alcohol-based sanitizers have been installed everywhere possible. Before starting a shift, all employees enter via the main doors, where an employee takes their temperature, first with a non-contact thermometer and then, if that is positive for fever, with an oral thermometer. Anyone showing signs of a fever is refused entry and told to call 1-877-644-4545.

 

A hand-washing station can be seen under a tent at the main entrance to the Leahy Orchards facility in Franklin Centre. The company is one among several in the Valley that has had to balance an increase in demand for its products with ensuring the health and safety of its employees. Photo Sarah Rennie

 

Social distancing has also been integrated into the factory through revised workstations and a change to the cafeteria set-up. Hallways and staircases have been made unidirectional, and the number of employees per office or room has been reduced. Visors are even provided in the case of activities where close contact is required. At the moment, visitors and subcontractors are being refused access unless they are considered essential to the running of the business.

Such strict practices are especially important right now as Leahy Orchards has seen a substantial increase in demand for their applesauce products. “Up to this point, all players in our supply chain have been instrumental in making sure we have the materials needed to produce,” Leahy says. “The most important thing is that our team at Leahy Orchards has responded with tremendous strength and courage to help us ensure that we do our part to make food available to the public.”

15 new hires at Maison Russet

“It is a time for us to help those who have lost their jobs,” says Claudie Bonhomme, the principal director of culture and organization at Maison Russet, which processes potatoes at its Huntingdon-based facility. The company launched its new website last week and has issued a call to recruit new employees. They have already hired 15 new workers, and are still looking to bring more into the fold to meet the demand for their potato-based products. Applications can be submitted via the new website: maisonrusset.com

The company is also having to cope with government measures while ensuring the health and safety of its employees. “We are taking this very seriously,” Bonhomme says, noting they have someone on patrol at all hours making sure surfaces are sanitized and that employees are respecting rules around social distancing. Before starting each shift, members of the staff must respond to a questionnaire on their health and whether they are experiencing any symptoms. They also must go through a wash centre to clean their hands before entering the factory.

Online orders up 10x

“We’ve had to hire nine more people,” says Morgan Cowan, commercial sales representative for Les Fermes Valens in Huntingdon. This is despite having had to close their in-store services to secure the safety of customers and staff. “Online orders are 10 times what they normally are,” she adds, noting that the company delivers and that all transactions are now being done electronically. Specializing in locally raised organic meats, eggs, etc., Valens also sells such products as snacks, cereals, dried beans, and canned goods. “We’ve never seen it like this before,” Cowan says, of the increase in demand. “Store orders are just through the roof.”

A silver lining, perhaps, to the pandemic may be a reinforcement of the ‘buy local’ logic, where consumers can have confidence in their food supply as it is being produced locally and not travelling great distances to our pantries. Certainly we are lucky, says Cowan, that we have access in the country to such quality food.

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