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The pandemic paradox

These farms are growing their sales and they’re enhancing their connections with consumers, all because of the COVID-19 pandemic

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic broke critical links in the supply chains that have been helping virtually all farmers build tighter relationships with a non-farming public. But neither is it a secret that Canada’s growing direct-to-consumer farmers faced an even more urgent challenge when restaurants, food markets and other sales outlets closed and they were forced to find new ways to get their harvests from farm to table.

So, have farmers learned valuable lessons that will not only see them through 2021, but also build long-term success too?

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Below, meet four farmers from different farm types who pivoted during the pandemic. Their stories of success (along with a few struggles) prove that necessity really is the mother of invention.


Viral videos

Every year, up to 3,000 people from Dufferin County, Ont., spend a day visiting local farms as part of the Dufferin Farm Tour, meeting farmers and learning more about how food gets to their tables.

“We started planning in January and it was all going along tickety-boo,” recalls Dufferin Farm Tour committee member Jeanette McFarlane.

Then came last March and April, and organizers were quick to see the event, which has been wildly popular since it started 20 years ago, couldn’t go on as planned.

Rather than cancelling, though, the committee decided to pivot.

“In a year that’s been so difficult for so many people, we felt like we needed to step up and make it happen,” McFarlane says. “Then the question became, ‘How do we do this?’”

The committee decided to take the Dufferin Farm Tour online.

In previous years, the tour featured six farms in a single township. Since visitors would be participating in the tour online, the committee expanded the offering to include 10 farms spread out across multiple townships. The participants included farms producing grass-fed beef, heritage pork, vegetables, fresh fruits and more, including value-added products ranging from pickles to jam.

McFarlane called it a “bigger and broader” event, adding, “All of the content could be shared, bringing the story of Dufferin County agriculture to a wider audience.”

The organizing committee conducted socially distanced interviews with farmers and it recorded virtual farm tours that were broadcast during a Facebook watch party on October 3 (and available for online viewing afterward). The event drew 2,700 views — and counting — and allowed viewers from near and far to learn more about farming and Dufferin County.

“The pandemic gave me the push I needed to go outside my comfort zone,” says dairy farmer and cheese maker Naomi De Ruiter. photo: Supplied

The content was not just educational. McFarlane notes that participating farmers can use the videos in their own marketing, helping them attract new customers. The virtual event also put a spotlight on local food at a time when Canadians were concerned about the source of their food and the security of the supply chain.

“The value of local food is more important than ever and it’s important to support local farming communities,” she says. “The virtual tour was a different endeavour for the committee but it was worth it.”

Milking the demand

Naomi De Ruiter is passionate about cows and cheese. The self-described “modern milkmaid” raises a small herd of Jersey cows on Birdsong Farm in Armstrong, B.C., where she transforms their rich, creamy milk into mozzarella, paneer and other artisanal cheeses.

De Ruiter is a self-taught cheesemaker. She started experimenting with recipes as a teenager and later honed her skills working in local cheese plants alongside an award-winning cheesemaker. Upon hearing she makes cheese from scratch, people expressed their fascination and were interested in learning the old-fashioned skill.

In 2012, De Ruiter started teaching classes at the family farm. The classes were so popular that she expanded to venues across the Okanagan, including wineries, farmers markets, farms and heritage villages. But, of course, the venues closed during the pandemic, leaving De Ruiter without an important source of farm income.

“I’d thought about taking the classes online before but I wasn’t sure if it would work because the classes were so hands-on,” she explains. “It was either do online classes or do nothing.”

Maybe, thought De Ruiter, Zoom technology would let her take her local business far beyond her usual geographic limits. photo: Supplied

In April, De Ruiter hosted a free online cheesemaking demo. Making queso blanco for a virtual crowd of 300 allowed her to get comfortable with the technology and build a mailing list for virtual classes. She hosted a virtual mozzarella making class a few weeks later.

Participants who registered for the $40 class received a kit containing rubber gloves, cheesecloth, rennet tablets and citric acid along with guidelines for purchasing milk and step-by-step instructions. A dozen students signed on for the first Zoom sessions and De Ruiter led them through the class. It was a huge success.

“I got great feedback and everyone had cheese at the end,” she says.

Although De Ruiter is eager to start teaching in person again, the pandemic pushed her business in a positive new direction.

“A lot of the venues where I teach are seasonal and the big advantage of doing classes online is that I can teach all year and reach people from outside this geographic area,” she says. “The pandemic gave me the push I needed to go outside of my comfort zone and teach classes online.”

Dominating at the drive-thru

Almost all of the certified organic vegetables that Tina and Arthur Davies grow on Emmerdale Eden Farm in Summerside, P.E.I., were sold through the Summerside Farmers’ Market. In March, the provincial government closed the market due to the pandemic, leaving the couple without an outlet to sell their produce.

“I started going on Facebook to advertise that farm-gate sales were open,” Tina Davies recalls. “By the third week, I was waking up in the morning to 30 orders left on the phone and orders continued coming in all day.”

To ensure customers felt safe shopping at the farm, the Davies turned the farm stand into a drive-thru market. Customers placed orders (and paid) in advance, pulled up to the farm stand, popped their trunks and Davies loaded their orders for a totally contactless experience.

Even though the farmers market in Summerside reopened in July, the couple kept their on-farm store open for business.

“Many people still prefer to come to the farm because they don’t want to be shopping indoors (at the market or the grocery store),” Davies says. “We’ve gotten a lot of new customers who are avoiding those places.”

The model was not without its challenges. Davies attempted to establish drive-thru hours but customers came at all times, making it hard to balance managing contactless pickups and farm chores.

Sales were brisk in the beginning but Davies knew she had to get creative to increase revenue to its pre-pandemic levels.

Emmerdale Eden Farm started selling their artisanal cheeses online and via local stores like Farmacy + Fermentary in Charlottetown. In turn, Emmerdale Eden Farm sells Farmacy + Fermentary kombucha at its farm stand to allow customers to buy a greater number of the products they need in a single stop.

Although the pandemic created the need to pivot, Davies believes these kind of innovations will benefit local farms for years to come.

“We’ve been joking with other farmers that we’ve all learned how to adapt to the times,” she says. “People have realized that buying locally and relying on the food on the island is really important, and we hope that will continue.”

Creating contactless experiences

A community-supported agriculture (CSA) program has been essential to the success of Snowy River Farms since Amy and David Hill started raising pastured hogs, free-range broilers and laying hens, and growing a market garden on their Cooks Brook, N.S. farm in 2011.

Subscribers signed up for a meat, egg or vegetable share between January and April and picked up their boxes each week from June through October. The Hills also sold their produce and proteins at local farmers markets and via wholesale accounts — at least until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

At Snowy River Farms, David and Amy Hill have made permanent improvements to their business model, thanks to their pandemic experience. photo: Supplied

“All of our restaurants cancelled their meat orders, farmers markets closed or decreased their numbers, CSA drop-off locations closed,” Amy Hill recalls. “We suddenly lost all of our avenues for sales.”

Customers were still hungry for Snowy River Farms’ products and started calling and emailing the farm to ask where they could find them. Hill knew she had to come up with a new pandemic-friendly plan. Contactless deliveries turned out to be the answer.

Hill created a new online store where customers could place their orders. Every Friday, she hit the road, driving from Elmsdale to Halifax delivering locally grown and raised foods.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, everyone worried about where they were going to get food,” she says. “We couldn’t get things uploaded to the store fast enough.”

To ensure contactless deliveries, Hill knocked on doors, stepped back and waited for the customer to collect their orders and then headed out on the next delivery.

The panic early on in the pandemic led to a big spike in sales. Hill even hired delivery drivers to help keep up with demand. As panic-buying subsided and grocery store shelves were restocked, fewer customers were requesting contactless deliveries.

Hill laid off the drivers and started marketing Snowy River Farms more to a wider swath of wholesale clients even though the prices are 15 to 20 per cent lower than she can get when doing her own retail. Despite the hardships, she remains optimistic about the pandemic-inspired pivots.

“The online store is something we’ll never get rid of,” she says. “We’ve gained new clients because we have an online store and, when the market reopens, we can take pre-orders. We’re glad the pandemic forced us to make this move.”

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