By Connor Lynch
MANOTICK — Direct-to-consumer farm businesses have been booming as COVID-19 chases people away from crowded areas.
And with people stuck at home, and fearful of a fruit and vegetable shortage, even people who have never had a garden are digging up their backyards.
Since garden centres re-opened last month, many have seen a huge spike in sales. Miller’s Farm, Market and Garden Centre, south of Manotick, sold out of vegetable seeds and most trays and buckets of vegetable plants and herbs in under two weeks, said owner Ron Miller. “Everybody wants to grow their own gardens.”
He said he didn’t know what to expect this year. “It’s unbelievable the sales,” Miller said, adding that he didn’t know one month earlier if he would even open. “We didn’t bring in any perennials and thought we’d be selling online.”
In mid-April, “we were thinking we weren’t going to be paying the bills.” But when they got the green light to open the greenhouse, the plants flew off the shelves. “My wife says veggies and seeds are the new toilet paper,” he said.
His son Simon said they have sold three times as much topsoil this year over last year. “I’ve never sold so much,” he said.
Early on in lockdown, many people stuck indoors decided to refresh their homes with a paint job. Now, with the beautiful weather, everyone’s looking at their homes from outside and tree farms are also seeing brisk sales.
Farmer Kenny Stuyt of Fallowfield Tree Farm at Stittsville, west of urban Ottawa, said sales were up 25 per cent, and he’s planted about twice as many trees — 6,000 — this year as he normally would.
At Woodlawn, Bijkerville Trees was practically overwhelmed by customers. The farm, started by Nicole Jones and her husband Eric, was expecting to sell 60 to 70 large trees this season, which normally started in mid-April. The farm got the go-ahead to start selling on May 11 and in 10 days sold 120 large trees and 500 nursery stalks, Nicole Jones said.
“I actually feel quite embarrassed about what a boomtown it is,” she said, given how much stress many are under in isolation and how much bad news is floating around. The farm does some delivery but the majority of trees get picked up on-site, she said. “Entire subdivisions were showing up.”
But not every farm is seeing a spike. At Johnston Brothers Tree Farm at Oxford Station, it was a very different story, said Kerry Johnston. Sales were down by two-thirds, he said. Most of the trees go to residential lots and homes. People can come out to the farm and pick the trees out, but most get delivered and put in by workers from the farm, Johnston said. As for why sales are down so much, “I’m not sure whether it’s money or they don’t want strangers on their properties at this unusual time.” Either way, it’s made it tough going for his family’s business, started in 1952 by his father and uncle.
“We’re suffering. And we’re a small business, we don’t qualify for the programs the government is throwing money at.” Without employees, they don’t qualify for wage subsidies, and as a tree farm they don’t fall under the purview of programs that got a $252 million boost from the feds last month. Though well short of the $2.6 billion the Canadian Federation of Agriculture was asking for, it’s at least something. “We don’t get those incentives.”
Oddly enough, Christmas tree farms could be in a spot of trouble as well, said Ian Thomas, who farms at North Gower. As non-essential businesses, they can’t bring staff in. And a busy time for the farm is actually during the summer. Not for sales of course, but pruning trees. It’s a labour-intensive process, with 4-5 weeks of nine-hour days to get it all done, said Thomas. Without it, trees don’t get as dense as they should, which affects how they sell come Christmas. Thomas has enough family to keep up with it, but without them he’d be in a bit of a bind, he said.
Johnston also grows Christmas trees, with pruning kicking off at the beginning of August. If restrictions stay tight, he said, it could be big trouble for his farm. Losing so much business during the summer would be bad enough, but losing some or all of Christmas? “If we don’t sell Christmas trees at Christmas time, we’re done.”