By Tom Collins
AVONMORE — Eastern Ontario fruit and vegetable growers are scrambling to find ways to keep their roadside stands open in the era of COVID-19.
Many farmers are installing social distancing signs, not allowing consumers to touch the produce, opening online stores and bringing in debit and credit machines to avoid touching money.
Normally, the Phillips family, of Avonmore Berry Farm don’t open their roadside stand until the middle of June. However, a local farmers’ markets remained closed throughout May. That forced the Phillips’ hand in opening their two roadside stands on May 21.
“We spent a lot of time and thousands of dollars on crop inputs and I’m sitting on an asparagus crop that I have to move somewhere,” David Phillips said.
Instead of plexiglass barriers like you see in grocery stores, the employees of Avonmore Berry Farm will wear clear- face shields, although that may change as the temperatures rise. The stand also has a rope barrier to keep customers from touching produce. The stand attendants will fill bags for them. The farm cleared all their new precautions with the local health unit.
“We’ve been going over this for the last two months,” Phillips said. “We’re prepared to do whatever we have to do to get things done very quickly.”
Phillips, who hasn’t been inside a store since March 13, believes the roadside stand business will be good this year. “I think people are going to be more comfortable coming to my farm and my roadside stand and buying directly from me than from a grocery store,” he said.
He’s probably right. Direct-to-consumer online sales have spiked and so have memberships in market gardens, known as community-supported agriculture of CSAs.
There are drawbacks. For McGregor’s Produce at Braeside in Renfrew County, COVID-19 means the farm will only open six roadside stands this summer instead of the 14 they had last summer because they lack foreign workers to plant and harvest. The farm normally has 24 off-shore workers, but will only have nine for this summer.
For the roadside stands that do open, there will be a 4-ft.-by-8-ft. table in front of the stand to help act as a barrier. There also won’t be as many options when it comes to produce sizes. For instance, instead of offering four different sizes of berry containers, there will only be one size.
Some of the roadside stands might include a greeter to shepherd people to where they should be going while making a payment at a separate table away from the produce.
“We will probably have a different team member who is just dealing with payment to keep things as clean as we can,” said Shannon Miller, of Miller’s Bay Farm at Lombardy, near Smiths Falls. “A lot of it is just to keep people feeling comfortable, because everybody has a different take on what’s necessary. We’ll try to go toward the cautious side.”
Paul Greer of Green Ridge Farms at Wellington in Prince Edward County, said most of the asparagus sold from the farm’s 60 acres is at the on-farm stand. The stand, which opened May 23, has been moved from inside the building to outside and plexiglass has been installed as a barrier between consumers and employees.
“We just felt we should to keep pace with all the other retailers that are close by,” said Greer. “We weren’t ordered to do it, but thought it was the right thing to do.”