Small farms are finding new ways to feed people as the COVID-19 pandemic restricts grocery shopping and squeezes supply chains in Canada.
Each summer, Sarah and Henry Bakker raise several thousand chickens, a dozen pigs, and a handful of grass-fed cattle at Field Sparrow Farms near Bobcaygeon, Ont. Most of their sales come from farmers’ markets, so by mid-March, Sarah was worried that market closures would tank their sales numbers. She emailed their customers to offer weekly deliveries.
“We have gotten slammed with orders,” she says. Every week, the Bakkers now deliver meat straight to their customers’ front doors. To meet increasing demand, they’re sourcing extra chicken from a neighbouring farm and a nearby Amish community. "Rural Ontario, rural Canadians … when something breaks, we jump in and help each other fix it,” she says.
Sarah says that people in Toronto are rethinking how and where they’re getting their food — and seeing the weaknesses of international grocery supply chains. She says she’s stressed and anxious about the pandemic, but hopeful and optimistic, too. “I feel like we're going to come out of this in a new world.”
‘MAKE IT WORK ON OUR OWN’
Farmers are adapting fast to their new reality. Amy and David Hill of Snowy River Farms, who have farmed in central Nova Scotia for 10 years, saw their sales evaporate over three days in March. The province shut down farmers’ markets, retailers closed their doors, and restaurants cancelled orders. “In a very short period of time,” says Amy, “it felt like we weren't going to sell anything.”
Snowy River Farms already offered a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box. CSA customers pay upfront to receive a weekly food box all summer. This gives farmers a much-needed cash boost during spring planting, usually a lean time. But the farm’s CSA numbers are down this year. “We’ve had a lot of people say that they would like to be part of the CSA, but, you know, they got laid off right now, so they're unsure if they're going to be able to pay.”
It takes more than $250 each day to keep the farm going. “I’ve got pigs, and I've got to keep feeding them,” says Amy. “We have chickens that are laying eggs … Whether you want them to or not, it doesn't matter, they still have to eat.” Plus, the Hills are in “full planting mode” for their large market garden.
When sales dropped, Amy built an online store offering weekly contactless deliveries. They’ve started picking up new customers who appreciate the delivery option. With delivery — and some of their retailers starting back up after their own adjustment periods — revenue is nearly back to normal.
“I'm not sitting around hoping I don't go into debt, and waiting for the government to find a way to pay us to make it work. We're just trying to do what we can to make it work on our own." Amy Hill of Snowy River Farms
“I'm not sitting around hoping I don't go into debt, and waiting for the government to find a way to pay us to make it work,” says Amy. “We're just trying to do what we can to make it work on our own." Amy has been astounded by how small businesses have come together to help each other sell product. “Because we are so here for each other right now, I know that that's going to last far past this pandemic,” she says. “And it's just going to make the small business community a lot stronger."
‘THE BEST FOOD THAT I KNOW HOW TO GROW’
While the average farm size in Canada is 820 acres, small farms are on the rise. In 2016, farms under 10 acres made up nearly seven per cent of farms in Canada. That’s more than 13,000 farms across the country, an increase from 2011.
Rob Veinott has been farming on the road between Halifax and Peggy’s Cove for several seasons. His Edible Earth Farm usually supplies quick salad crops to small farmers’ markets and restaurants, but he’s branching out beyond salad this year.
While many large farmers’ markets are moving online, Veinott says smaller ones like Spryfield and Tantallon may not. He plans to adapt the “fresh sheet” he uses for restaurants for a CSA, giving customers a choice of produce each week. He’s likely to include other growers’ product in his boxes, streamlining the distribution system and diversifying the options for customers.
“If people can't get access to food, they're going to be looking towards their local producers more than ever before,” he says. “Personally, as a farmer, I got into this world to help provide the best food that I know how to grow … More than ever, I feel this fire inside of me burning more intense to work even harder than ever before, grow more food than ever before, just in case something does happen that affects the supply lines and food can't get to Nova Scotia.”
‘MAKING PEOPLE ABLE TO AFFORD FOOD’
Unfortunately, not everyone can afford local meat and produce. That’s on farmers’ minds. “Cheap food hides its costs elsewhere,” says Sarah Bakker in Ontario. “I want to talk about making people able to afford food, not making food affordable.” Bakker hopes to see a guaranteed income program coming out of the current crisis. "We are seeing what happens when there is no basic income guarantee. People are stretched and struggling.”
Bart Bounds of Elemental Farms in the Yukon wants people to understand the costs of local, ethically produced food. He sells produce and plants through the Whitehorse farmers’ market and a CSA program. Bounds expects a big bump in demand due to COVID-19, but he nearly shut down his farm this season after a series of unfortunate weather events and a broken tractor in 2019.
"Because I've been giving people a fair deal on their groceries, I don't have any more resources to get things back on track,” says Bounds. He says he’d be better off doing something else with his time and farming just to feed his family, but now’s the time to “step up, not back.”
In the Yukon, where the pool of skilled farm labour is “nonexistent” and costs of living are high, Bounds often finds that his seasonal workers are gone by harvest time — leaving him to work 100-hour weeks for several months. He’d like to pay staff $20 an hour and offer some benefits, but to do that, he needs customers to know what it costs to give farmers a living wage. Eight dollars per dozen eggs? That gives him $15 an hour. Nine dollars per dozen? That’s about a living wage, he says. This year, he plans to raise the price on food for those who can afford to pay more, maybe by offering a sliding scale for CSA payment. “The wealthy are getting enough of a break in this,” he says, “that us poor folk gotta push back a bit.”
WHAT GOVERNMENT CAN DO FOR LOCAL FOOD
In a statement released March 19, the National Farmers Union demanded that farmers’ markets be considered an essential service. Markets are closed to browsers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan, although many markets are setting up online marketplaces to allow customers to pre-order goods for pickup or delivery. Markets are still permitted to open to browsers in Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, Newfoundland & Labrador, and the territories (although some markets in these regions have also closed or shifted to online pre-ordering). In Nova Scotia, Rob Veinott questions why open-air farmers’ markets aren’t considered essential services when enclosed stores like Walmart are still open. “It feels unfair to me. Like, all these small producers can't sell out of a parking lot anymore, whereas a very large multinational corporation is still allowed to have hundreds of people within their store."
Back in Ontario, Sarah Bakker says that she’s not expecting to qualify for government relief money through Farm Credit Canada, because federal funding almost always seems to go to larger operators. “The government has been so focused on exports, and export-related agriculture,” she says.
Bakker works for the National Farmers Union and would like to see more abattoir processing capacity in Ontario, with “scale-appropriate regulations” designed to support small local plants. She’s worried about disruptions to the meat-processing chain, such as the two-week closure of Olymel Pork Processing in Quebec — which began March 29, after nine employees were diagnosed with COVID-19, and is expected to reduce hog shipments from Ontario by more than half during the closure.
Bart Bounds, who sits on the boards of the Whitehorse farmers’ market and food bank, wants governments to prioritize local food systems.
“It's such a terrible 'I told you so' feeling,” he says. “For 10 years, I've been telling the governments, ‘You know what? Let's just invest in the future of getting a sustainable, resilient food system going here. Because it's going to come to a day where that's really important, and if we don't have things in place for it, we'll never catch up.’ And lo and behold, here we are.”
Bounds says the government could help small farms by offering low- or zero-interest loans, and support even to farmers who don’t own their property. But he doesn’t think it’s a governmental priority: “I wish food was as important as pipelines,” he says.
ALL HANDS ON DECK
As markets move online, customers are pitching in to help. Rebekkah Hyams, a foodie who lived in Montreal and the U.K. before moving to Halifax a few years ago, relishes each new vendor and market she finds. When COVID-19 hit, she noticed social media was awash with long threads of where to find local eggs, organic milk, fresh fish, and more — but the threads were hard to follow and easy to lose. She quickly created HRM Food, a website suppling contact information for local food producers in the Halifax region.
Hyams, who is social isolating with her twin toddler boys, says the site is a bit of a sanity saver during the pandemic. Originally intended for her friends and family, it took off quickly. “There’s a lot of community spirit happening right now,” she says, and customers want to support local farmers.
Hyams spends a few hours every few days updating the website as farmers send her their contact information and delivery options. Since farmers don’t have local storefronts, she says visibility is particularly important for them.
“I do hope that people will, after all this, remember who was looking after them,” she says. “Who was making sure that we still had all those nice things that come from the land, when everything was going, as we like to say in the U.K., tits up!"
As the COVID-19 crisis continues, farmers' markets across the country are adapting. Farmers' Markets of Nova Scotia is working to help markets of all sizes launch online stores. Executive director Justin Cantafio says the organization secured $30,000 from the Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture to cover some of the costs associated with the transition. While most seasonal markets wouldn't yet be open this early in the season, all the year-round markets in Nova Scotia (except the Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market) have shifted to pre-ordering and are operating online stores of some capacity, says Cantafio. He expects that, of the more than 50 markets in the province, most will be able to establish an online store. If that's not possible, he says his organization will work with vendors to find other options. "Farmers' markets, at least in Nova Scotia, have been doing everything in their power to stay operational," says Cantafio. "We won't leave any farmers' market without a solution."