By Connor Lynch
DUTTON — As larger producers struggle with weak commodity prices or processing issues, farmers that move products locally and directly to the public have seen business boom.
For beef farmer Rob Tait, a bit of luck went a long way. He’s been selling online since 2013. The 100-head beef operation started out focusing on farm-to-city sales, before pivoting to supplying restaurants and then opening an on-farm store. It was just back in December, before COVID-19 hit, that he decided it was time to upgrade the website and online ordering system. “I know a lot of places are trying to figure that out now,” he said. “We were able to pivot very quickly.”
Pre-pandemic, much of their meat was going to restaurants. When restaurants were shut down in March, that revenue stream dried up but online sales direct to consumers more than made up for it. They do weekly deliveries into London, St. Thomas and the surrounding area.
Many producers that have seen a boost in online sales say consumers have an aversion to a grocery store filled with other people or worry about food supply.
Lambton County beef farmer Joe Dickinson used to put most of his animals through the sale barn, with only a third going directly to consumers as “freezer beef.” Since COVID-19 hit, he’s only been selling freezer beef and sales have tripled. Other producers have seen similar interest, and a few area farmers have reached out to him to supply their customers.
He uses two butchers; one for standing orders and the other for overflow. He’s shipping animals almost every other week, sometimes as many as three. “It’s a nice change, he said. “I wish it was under different circumstances.”
Ken Norton runs a mixed livestock and vegetable farm in Haldimand County and has seen online sales jump by more than 400 per cent amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Alongside their own beef, pork and chicken, they source vegetables, bread and baked goods from local farms and business. Sales across the board have been up, driven predominantly by people stocking up on proteins, Norton said.
But if you’re ordering a quarter side of beef, you might as well grab some vegetables and some bread if it’s available, rather than go to the grocery store, he said.
Having an online presence has been a big boon in a time of social distancing, and Norton said about 90 per cent of his business gets sourced through Facebook. “I don’t think we could do what we do without it.”
The farm used to do home delivery but the logistics were frustrating and impractical, so they offer pickup at the farm. It seems to be working. “There are people that drive three hours to pick up from us.”
Norton was hopeful that at least some of the boom would last beyond COVID-19. Once people have started picking up from the farm, they tend to stick with it, impressed by quality and prices are usually the same or less than at the grocery store, he said. “I think people realize they need to support local farms because the next time they need it, it might not be there.