Global Supply Chain Disruptions Impacting Local Food Producers

Global Supply Chain Disruptions Impacting Local Food Producers

The Story Behind the Packaging That Brings Our Food to Market

Imagine walking through the produce aisle of your grocery store; it’s fall, and the store is featuring a variety of local apples. A display of apples from a local farm, offering 3-pound pouches with a convenient handle, catches your eye, and you select a pouch of golden apples to put in your cart. 

Eco-certified apples ready to be purchased at the grocery store
Photo by Red Tomato

How often have you gone through this fruit-selection process at a store? And how often have you paused to consider not only who grew the apples — something often featured on those marketing displays and so very important to understand and consider — but how that packaging was actually designed and made available to the farmer and, then, to you? The truth is that even your local fruit suppliers and apple orchards are impacted by global production and supply chain dynamics when sourcing basic materials like the packaging needed to get their product to market.

Following on the heels of COVID-related production shutdowns, delays and complications, local farmers are facing supply chain challenges that impact how their fruit gets to markets. After a long season of tending their orchards and bringing in farmworkers to help with harvest, farmers are left waiting for the packaging to be delivered before they can get their fruit to the store to sell. As with other supply chains that bring us the products we use, shipments of packaging for Red Tomato’s network of growers have had a slower and messier journey than usual on their way to that store display of local apples.

Global Supply Chain Disruptions Impacting Local Food Producers

The apple pouches used by Red Tomato’s network of apple growers are a critical component of branding and marketing the product. Red Tomato works closely with the growers, our retail customers, and the packaging company to design packaging that is efficient and economical for both farmers and consumers, as environmentally-friendly as possible, with the extra challenges of being a small player in a global market.

We are fortunate to work with Russo Packaging, one of a small number of US companies that handle this type of packaging and supplies many of the largest apple companies in the industry. The owner, Jason Russo, is a trusted partner who goes the extra mile to make sure we benefit from their experience and innovation. That relationship and commitment to quality are even more crucial when things get challenging.

Ultimately, the packaging has to work for every person handling the product along the entire supply chain while also presenting the product in a way that is appealing to consumers. Currently, plastic packaging offers the longest shelf-life, limits handling of the produce, protects produce from damage, and allows customers to see the product. Plastic is also significantly less expensive than alternative packaging options. All packaging has environmental trade-offs; plastic is not ideal, but it is easier and cheaper to source than anything else. Red Tomato is committed to reducing single-use plastic waste. We continue to work towards that goal and are excited that the new packaging for our Heirloom Discovery Pack is 100% recyclable. 

Red Tomato team review produce packages.
Photo by Red Tomato

For the time being, most of Red Tomato’s plastic packaging must be produced and shipped from China. That means that the story of how your apples get to the store where you pick them up, originates halfway around the world. Remember back to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic? China, the epicenter of global manufacturing, was the first country to effectively shut down, creating immense challenges in global supply chains. Now, the news is full of stories about shipping containers: there are not enough of them and there are not enough people to help operate them. Some of the boxes on those containers were filled with Red Tomato’s apple pouches.

Red Tomato’s packaging designer, Diane Rast, placed our order for this season’s packaging in August. Because we often do not have commitments from our largest customers until then, we rely on packaging already on-hand to start the season, and plan the new order to take us through the rest of the year. Pre COVID, the lead time for ordering from overseas was 8-10 weeks to ship on the water. In 2021, it’s now 14-16 weeks on the water! We opted for an air shipment at a much higher cost, expecting it within 3-4 weeks. The shipment finally arrived at Blue Hill Orchards on October 4, 2021.

  1. Eco Apple pouch shipments sat at the airport for multiple days, with trucks not able to pickup shipments because airports were too backed up including traffic into the airport for shipment. Airports were often charging fees of $1,000 a day or more to hold product for the extra time, despite the pickups not being possible. 
  2. Our order was in disarray upon delivery to the grower. Our network of orchards collaborates to combine orders, have them delivered to one orchard, and redistribute them to save costs. Pallet shipments of 9 cases high and 9 pallets wide had mixed pouch sizes within each individual pallet, making the unpacking process difficult and added time to the grower’s process in filling and shipping the pouches out to other growers. 
  3. Deadlines for ordering packaging and other shipments required at least a two-month lead time, even before the pandemic, and now the complications in unloading and delivery to the final customer are even further behind. 
  4. Larger orchards across the US also ran out of pouches as they waited on shipments. In one case, a shipment sat on vessels in the water outside of the Tacoma, Washington, dock for a month. As of August 2021, 1.4 million containers were sitting on vessels off the West Coast, waiting to dock and unload. Only an estimated 75,000 containers per day can be unloaded, meaning this backup will continue to be a problem for a considerable amount of time.
Damaged boxes of Red Tomato packaging sits in a warehouse
Photos by Blue Hill Orchard

These are just a few examples of the bumps and hurdles along the way for this season’s Red Tomato apple packaging. At the start of the pandemic, companies predicted that there would be a decrease in commercial activity and reacted by slowing down their production and reducing capacity. Supply chains were significantly disrupted by the cutbacks and closures of factories as the world started to make sense of how people could safely visit retail spaces (like grocery stores) again. The result is that rather than the anticipated decline, some sectors are experiencing a significant economic boom due to the pandemic. While these trends are encouraging for the economy, it usually takes a lot of lead up to get supply chains in place to meet demand. In this case, our global shipping operations were just not ready.

Supply issues have been problematic on multiple levels. We have a grower that ordered 10,000 Eco Apple paper tote bags in early August. They will not be printed until mid December and they are located in Pennsylvania. That is 4 months compared to pre-COVID, which was roughly 2 months. We ordered mastercases for our peach pouches from a printer in Boston on August 11th. I was told delivery would be in 3 weeks but we did not receive them until September 10th, due to a lack of workers showing up. – Diane Rast, Red Tomato’s Packaging Designer

Although we are in a time of unprecedented uncertainty due to the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, many experts agree that our supply chain was vulnerable to begin with. Our increasingly global interdependence coupled with growing threats due to climate change will require more resilience in the future. The cascading effects of global manufacturing and shipping companies halting their production are still being felt today, and experts predict that we will be feeling its effects for many months, if not years, to come. 

The next time you pick up that apple pouch of locally grown apples, take a moment and consider what all went into not just growing the apples, but packaging and delivering them to you as well!