By Patrick Meagher and Connor Lynch
WINCHESTER — While the pandemic has shut down much of the economy, selling directly to the customers and online sales have been a boon for some farmers.
Vegetable growers selling CSA (community supported agriculture) memberships are seeing a huge uptick in interest due to social distancing and fear of COVID-19. A CSA typically supplies weekly produce and can cost between $200 to $600 per member.
One reason for the increase is that large city grocery stores cannot handle the rush of online orders. “People are also concerned about food scarcity,” said Winchester’s Leah Fawcett, of Plot of Earth, who has a one-acre plot and had 15 members last year. She thought her business would be shuttered this year but she’s now up to 25 members. “I’ve even started a waiting list.”
Roots and Shoots CSA just north of Ottawa, at Wakefield, Quebec, has increased CSA members this year by 100 members to peak at 480 members and they still have another 100 people on a waiting list. They have also seen on-farm sales take off since local farmers’ markets shut down. At height of summer, they typically have 14 workers.
“Demand is more than what we can handle right now,” said farm owner Jessica Weatherhead. “Farmgate sales have replaced farmers’ markets, so that’s huge.”
She also plans to “up our game” and transform their “rinky dink” roadside help-yourself stand by erecting a sign and adding an attendant. “It’s amazing,” she said. “We’ve just got to figure out how to manage it all with social distancing.”
North Gower’s Mel Foster said he had 150 enrolled in his CSA last year and expects that to easily double to 300 this year. The Bramblee Lea Farm CSA at Athens has seen a jump from 60 to 80 members. They have set up a website and introduced home delivery to all clients in Brockville and Ottawa to ensure social distancing.
“We’re adapting,” said owner Melissa Ondrovcik, explaining that they had to get around the closing of farmers’ markets where they delivered their produce each week. She added that the pandemic has heightened awareness of the value of local food. “The CSA model is high demand,” she said. “People are now thinking about food security. They just really want to know that what they’re doing is safe.”
Consumers have reason to worry. The Holland Marsh just north of Toronto produces 90 per cent of Ontario’s fresh vegetables but due to a foreign labour shortage, farmers there are hoping to harvest 50 per cent of its normal production, Ontario Federation of Agriculture president Keith Currie said.
Direct-to-consumer sales are rising as well thanks to an online farm stores.
When farmers’ markets shut down, they rushed to launch an online presence, said Brockville’s Chris Hall, of Hall’s Apple Market. This month, local buyers will be able to go to their favourite market online, order what they want, and pick it up at the farmers’ market or at a nearby location. “Everyone is scrambling to go online,” he said.
The Kingston Memorial Centre Farmers’ Market began selling online only in late March and “all of our vendors are selling more than they did at the market,” said Gananoque organic farmer and farmers’ market board member Jeff Klug.
Karen Plunkett was a vendor at two Ottawa farmers’ markets and at Kingston until all three shut down. That pushed her to move the Frugal Farm, south of Smiths Falls, to online sales for the first time as she’s hearing from other farms that “sales have gone way up.”
She sells her own pork, beef, lamb, goats and chickens and began receiving customer email inquiries in April.
Some exotic produce is also seeing booming business. Shelly Spruit grows heritage grains, like red corn and barley, at Winchester and offers value-added products like pancake and cornbread mixes. Her customer base isn’t individuals but businesses and online sales have been roaring, she said. “It’s been excellent. We’re doing a lot better sales.”
Curbside pickup and prepaid product has been moving well to businesses that retail her products and even to restaurants, many of which have closed their doors and moved to home delivery and takeout.
Online meat sales are also seeing a tremendous spike in sales. Bearbrook Farms owner Heidi Henn, east of Ottawa, has seen online sales exceed farmers’ market sales but figures this is a one-off situation that will subside as the economy re-opens.
Small farms see huge benefit as large farms face worker shortage in pandemic
By Patrick Meagher and Connor Lynch