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05 June 2020 — OIV life

Lessons from Southern Hemisphere harvest management during Covid-19

Safety, anticipation, transparency, communication, coordination and digitalisation were the key words of the OIV Webinar lessons transmitted by the 5 Southern Hemisphere speakers.

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On 29 May, the OIV held the webinar “Harvest management during Covid-19 crisis in the Southern Hemisphere – what can we learn from it?”.

Five experts from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile and Argentina, discussed the challenging situation they were confronted with during the past 3 months, namely:

  • Tony Battaglene, Chief Executive of Australian Grape and Wine Incorporated
  • Jeffrey Clarke, General Manager Advocacy & General Counsel of New Zealand Winegrowers
  • Yvette Van Der Merwe, Executive Manager, South Africa Wine Industry Information and Systems (SAWIS)
  • Aurelio Montes, President, Wines of Chile
  • Daniel Rada, Director, Argentine Wine Observatory / Professor of International Economics, National University of Cuyo, Argentina

By sharing their visions and experiences, each speaker gave important insights to those who, in Northern Hemisphere, will start harvest in a few months.

Moderated by Antonio Graça, Secretary of the Sustainable Development and Climate Change experts’ group of the OIV (Portugal), this webinar counted a registration of 518 attendees from 46 countries.

If you were not able to see it live, you can still watch the full webinar:

For your benefit, we summarise in this article the main ideas.

Government efficient answers

In New Zealand, the wine sector worked hand in hand with government which, according to Jeffrey Clarke, “provided very efficient answers”, allowing for the achieved success because, “government trusted the industry”. To complete grape harvesting and winemaking while ensuring no transmission of Covid-19, under strict lockdown conditions, was “very challenging”, but “possible” in Clarke’s words. Despite the obvious managing success “some reduction in harvest volumes where hand harvest not possible” was observed, along with “material increases in costs and stress” as well.

In Australia, it was essential “to have a single trusted source to rely on” and Tony Battaglene explained how Australian Grape & Wine Incorporated became the media spokesman and point of contact for the government on relief measures. “Without those measures, it wouldn’t be possible to stay open and complete the harvest”, affirmed the speaker.

As mentioned by Battaglene, the flow of labour, freight and supply of inputs for the Australian wine sector was maintained throughout the Covid-19 crisis by adopting several elements as:

  • Risk management plans in place
  • Cleaning protocols
  • Hygiene and appropriate availability of sanitiser products
  • Social distancing and use of shifts
  • The use of traceability protocols

Battaglene also highlighted the importance of digital tools playing an important role by allowing for virtual tastings, virtual wine shows and virtual reality tourism programs. But he expressed concern about the future: “the true economic burden is still to be felt. The worst is yet to come for many small businesses, as we enter into a recession, employment will take time to return to pre-Covid-19 levels and business and consumer confidence will take a long time to recover”.

Finding solutions in creativity

In South Africa, from the beginning of the pandemic until 23 March, wine was not considered to be part of agriculture, which complicated the situation of the sector in the country, a situation aggravated by the ban on the sale of alcohol in the South African market.

Eventually, as stated by Yvette Van Der Merwe, on 26 March “harvesting and storage activities were considered essential to prevent the wastage of primary agricultural goods”. Faced with “government’s variant response regarding local and exports, some key elements were identified”, stated the speaker, naming several initiatives as:

  • find new and creative ways to build on the relationship with the customer
  • opportunities identified
  • online/direct sales/e-commerce
  • digitalisation/development and application of technology
  • new partnerships
  • increased collaboration – client relationships

Anticipation is vital

Daniel Rada shared an analysis on how the Argentinian wine and viticulture sector faced Covid-19, listing the means implemented to carry out the process. When starting its presentation, Rada strongly warned the Northern Hemisphere by repeating the word “anticipate”. Among the measures adopted during the crisis, the speaker pointed out:

  • Digital tools and using it as a key-element of carrying on with activities
  • Increase in the rate of use of available technology
  • Provision of information to all actors of the industrial chain
  • Loans issued by the national government intended to help wineries afford labor costs
  • Maintaining employment levels
  • Training and instruction

Aurelio Montes explained that in Chile, by the time the pandemic crisis started, they were already picking white grapes, in February. In March, they “speeded up” when they realised the gravity of the pandemic. Fearing the measures that authorities might take, the “Wines of Chile Association” organised several meetings with Chilean authorities to explain the importance of workers’ mobility during harvest. According to the speaker, it was fundamental to avoid stopping work in the vineyards. “The authorities were very positive and realised it would have a big impact if they put up too much obstacles in workers mobility. So we continued working, but implementing measures to keep our people safe, like for instance, social distance, masks, gloves, hand washing, increasing shifts (mostly in cellars) ...”, explained Montes.

Therefore, despite the threat of the pandemic, harvest went quite well in Chile. “We finished the harvest by the 3rd week of April, by then the contamination in Chile was very low”, stated the speaker, who congratulated the Chilean workers: “they kept on working with a lot of responsibility and passion, not missing a single day”.

Looking at the consequences of the crisis, for Aurelio Montes, the problem is more on the commercial side with the “on trade” decrease. “The online sales helped a little bit the low sales that we are facing on the on trade (which represents 75% of our total sales). But fortunately, in Northern Hemisphere things are getting better and China, an important market for us, is opening”, he concluded.

CONCLUSIONS

Resilience, planning and transparency are key

“If you use lessons you have learned from past crisis to prepare future crisis, you become better prepared to manage them”. The moderator, Antonio Graça started his conclusion by stressing the importance of transparency when managing the Covid-19 crisis, mentioned by the New Zealand speaker, Jeffrey Clarke. Adding: “the transparency of all processes, not just during the crisis, but for the planning of any future crisis, gives a sense of confidence to all actors and stakeholders in the value chain”. In this sense, Graça also reminded another key pointed out by Yvette Van Der Merwe: the importance of coordination. “Coupling that with sound planning, the coordination of all actors is essential, and can determine the success or failure of any effort towards these issues”.

Finally, a boost to digitalisation

“We had a lot of digital tools available before, but we were not pressed enough to start using them, and now that you (in Southern Hemisphere ) have used them, because of the crisis, they will remain”, stated the moderator, explaining that it is “very important for the Northern Hemisphere [to realise] that we sometimes have available options that we’re not using, not because they’re not good or have no value, but just because we are used to do things like we have always done, and the inertia to change is always present”. So, he concluded: “a concerted effort to overcome that inertia is always a good point towards getting out of crisis in good shape”.

Antonio Graça

Coordination with governments and local authorities is essential

Coordination with all actors in the sector is very important. Clear communication mechanisms and tools are needed to get the message that wine sector is essential and plays an important role in the life of rural communities in terms of employment, economic activity, landscapes, etc...

Coordination with government authorities is needed to ensure safe and efficient continuity of operations during the crisis, but also to secure financial and organisational support after the crisis to allow operators to recover from the consequences of the crisis.

The role of the OIV

Covid-19 pandemic showed that the OIV has the means to play an essential role in crisis management. First, the message of essential role of vitiviniculture must be enhanced and promoted. Second, experience and information sharing in case of major crisis or technological shifts can be helpful for governments and industry players to better adapt to new conditions.

Without any doubts, the OIV must remain an important partner of governments.