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Agrifoods Copes with Covid
A Look Over the Fence
By Tars Cheema
Producers felt the brunt of the Covid-caused milk back-splash in March/ April as dairy consumption patterns were swinging wildly with the sudden stay-at-home orders and closing of hospitality outlets. Here’s a look into the processor’s world during the early stages of the Covid-calamity.
Agrifoods trucks kept rolling through the Covid period with many drivers logging additional shifts, covering for isolating colleagues returning from Spring Break travels in March.
Watching, Anticipating,
Mike Dick’s two year tenure leading Operations and Finance at Agrifoods provided sufficient familiarity with their processes to direct the swift adaptations to Covid’s vast and evolving risks. Perhaps more important was his 20 years’ experience in dairy processing, coming from Agropur/Island Farms. “Because we already operate in an environment of ‘high care’ when producing perishable dairy products, we have a solid culture of extreme hygiene and precautions, including masks,” he sets the scene. While Covid was on most everyone’s radar in January and February, few moved beyond simply monitoring the progression. “We began our internal discussions at the start of February, making plans to address the risks we anticipated. The first step was to set up remote working setups for office staff.” It was immediately clear that keeping the manufacturing going was critical and enabling non-manufacturing staff to work from home
months of production through this time, they are pleased that there have been no Covid cases among their plant staff, no cases of self-isolation among the plant nor office staff, and no staff were laid-off.
The Unexpected Spike
Not only are all aspects of the business continuing to function, they managed to quickly adapt to the unexpected surge in demand of some products. “It came fast in the last week of March,” Mike starts, “More people were at home and making conscious decisions about what they were consuming.”
“It was an acceleration of the trend that was already there towards ‘local’ and ‘healthy’ products,” Ursula adds. These were consumer branded products in the health/ wellness segment. “Nielsen documented the purchasing shift away from the ‘Big Box’ retailers to more local suppliers, which added to this growth in these products.” In particular, organic dairy products, (especially milk - including grass-fed) and
The Saccomaniacs are
excited to announce
that the amount
of funds raised this
year with our golf
tournament has hit new
heights. Once again, the generosity and support of the ag industry has demonstrated that this industry gives back and helps to make a difference for families with loved ones on the Spectrum.
This year, our total amount raised will exceed $120,000. This would not be possible if not for
the generous donation made by many individuals, companies and associations. In particular, Henry Gisler and family (sons Adam and Evan, and daughter Kaitlyn) in loving memory of their wife and mother – Laura Marie Gisler- who passed away July 1, 2019. They support and recognize the need to provide services and programs for families in the Fraser Valley. The PAFN, and in particular, the Chilliwack Spoke, are forever grateful for their kindness and thoughtfulness, which are attributes that reflect how Laura lived her life.
We are excited for what the future holds for us and what we can provide families, and it is with support from the ag sector that we can continue our quest!
Dairy industry leaders showing their support and encouragement.... and of course their golf talent!
In memory of Laura, the Gisler Family is pleased to support the work of The Pacific Autism Family Network with their donation. Laura was kind, generous and thoughtful toward others. This gift honours her spirit and will help Steve and Antoinette in their worthwhile endeavours.
We look forward to our 13th annual event next year!
Steve & Antoinette Saccomano The Saccomaniacs!
was one step to
reduce people
exposure and keep
everyone safe.
“The team took
it very seriously
early on, though
we wondered
how real it was.
Our first priority
was to protect
employees. Next, we identified that what we did was essential – for our members and consumers and we took this double obligation very seriously,” Mike explains. Ursula Klein, Manager of Member Services went on, “We needed real separation between each of our touch points – for employee safety and to reduce any potential risks to producers, our transport drivers and to consumers.” The picture of the processing hub potentially being a multi-directional vector for Covid risk was quickly coming into stark focus.
By March, they enacted the ‘next level’ measures. “Tuesday March 17 was the ‘lock-down’ and we had communicated it well to staff to assuage the fear and anxiety – it affected about 50 employees at the main Burnaby location,” Ursula recalls that pivotal time. Overall, Agrifoods has about 400 staff between their locations in Burnaby, Port Coquitlam, Delta, Guelph and Quebec City. With some staff returning from Spring Break holidays as Covid hit the fan, they were quarantined to protect the others. In the case of transport drivers, the supply chain could have been seriously affected, had existing staff not chosen to work additional shifts to cover for their isolated colleagues. “Pretty well all of our employees continued to work. There is real dedication in our culture at Agrifoods. Our staff is really engaged in what they do,” shares Mike with deep appreciation. “There was a ‘Canadians need us’ motivation... it’s part of our co-op mindset,” Ursula reinforces Mike’s comment.
Over the ensuing months, plans continued to be developed for Business Continuity, should the worst happen, and communication to both stakeholders and staff took on particular importance to reassure everyone that it was ‘business as usual’ though, not as usual. Their standard procedures include no visitors to the processing locations, routine RF temperature checks and heavily restricted staff travel. Staff groups are totally separated so there is no cross-over between shifts. “I have only visited the plant myself once, on a scheduled visit,” Mike says, emphasizing the ongoing precautions that apply to everyone. Now, with some five
oat beverages saw the biggest increases. It required some deft juggling between the manufacturing plants to accommodate the increase in throughput, but they managed to fill nearly 100% of
the demand. While some of the specific product growth has slowed a little since then, these new patterns of product consumption may become the new normal.
Going Forward with Covid
To provide the staff with necessary assurancesofstability,theyhaveextended the remote working arrangements for non-plant staff to January when they will review the situation. “It’s so important to provide staff with ample communication to minimize worry,” Ursula affirms. In true collaborative spirit, they continue to survey staff regarding their needs and comfort level while including all employees in defining the ‘new normal’ as they contemplate the future of the office work structure.
“We started on the side of caution, and we will stay there. We have turned up the quality of our processes and we will keep them,” Mike declares. Through the sudden and crucial demands of dealing with Covid, Agrifoods has had to learn and ‘make decisions on the fly.’ “This was all unknown, and it was not in anyone’s comfort zone,” he admits. “There’s been positives out of this – there’s a new mindset that is open to technology and new ways to work,” Mike says with a hint of excitement. Due to the risks posed by travel, they had to create remote-monitoring systems for each of the manufacturing locations. This is clearly an improvement from the old system that required staff travel to each plant. They have recognized the evolving patterns of the consumer during this period also, and being a small, ‘agile’ organization allows them to adjust quickly and advantageously.
“It helps to have a staff base that’s flexible and open-minded to the changes. They have a ‘nimble’ attitude,” Mike offers. “We have an engaged culture,” Ursula adds her support.
I am left with a sense that Agrifoods’ strength through Covid has and will continue to be people that care about their organization/colleagues, their members and their consumers. Out of this is borne a humble determination to succeed and thrive with innovations.
We needed real separation between each of our touch points – for employee safety and to reduce any potential risks to producers, our transport drivers and to consumers.

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