Perhaps you have heard, we—the collective world—have hit the six-month COVID hump. At this point, within a cycle of “disaster” (as it has been for so many), experiencing a wide range of big emotions is normal. So if you are overwhelmed as you stare down from this hump-like place, know that burnout is quite likely. It may also be helpful to know that within the ag community, support (including funding and some really smart folks) is available.
For example, Community Futures has developed a new REACH program designed to help agricultural businesses recover.
“From lost farmgate sales to lost harvest workers, agricultural businesses in the North Okanagan have had a tough year because of COVID-19. Now, a new business accelerator program aims to help the region’s agricultural entrepreneurs get the tools and support they need to pivot operations, scale up and succeed.”
Because of our connection to the small-medium scale agriculture community, Land to Table was able to provide Community Futures with information they needed to direct federal “recovery” funding into this pilot project (now accepting applications).
As we’ve also seen, COVID has forced many to adapt and innovative. Here is some of what Land to Table has heard/gathered from regional small-medium scale agri-businesses…
A shift to online sales
In May (still at the beginning of the growing season), many farmers were shifting to online sales platforms where possible, with customers showing significant interest in trying to use the new online systems. Many farmers had an increase in interest/sales of CSA boxes (some doubled those sales), which helped some to compensate against lost restaurant sales. However, more CSA boxes meant more labour/time required to fill and deliver those orders. And more online sales required more time and expertise to showcase product and input pricing that some just did not have access to.
Some farmers definitely experienced a dip or lull in farmers market sales mid season, perhaps due to the rain and cold but perhaps also because so many people were growing food at home and starting to reap the benefits of their own gardens. It may have also been that folks were choosing to spend their money differently (more frugally)?
Increased demand for small-scale meat
Small-scale meat has been a hot topic for many reasons. We heard that local, small-meat producer sales—direct to consumers—have gone through the roof and can’t keep up with demand, with many saying they are sold out months in advance. Because consumer interest is so high, some meat producers have been able to pivot their restaurant sales (which are way down or totally gone) to retail and online sales. For some, this has meant changing packaging and portion sizes. In general, it’s good news for small-scale meat producers and this has affected the conversation about small-scale meat production in BC, from a regulatory standpoint, going forward.
Minimal restaurant sales, varied retail sales
Restaurant sales seem to continue to be minimal. Those who were relying on those sales have been hit hard (e.g. local cheese going to high-end restaurants). We’re also hearing that the Nature’s Fare commissary kitchen, which typically would purchase boxes of local organic produce, are currently only purchasing bunches.
What we heard about retail sales varied: Some said it’s fine with some increasing retail sales, while others said it has dropped due to some small-scale grocery stores cutting way back because they can’t get the volume of people in their stores.
A need for innovative strategies
Could there be a silver lining? Some small businesses have indicated that COVID (and the lock-down in particular) has provided an opportunity to innovate—to think about how to sell products in a different way. For example, a crepe food truck is now selling frozen crepes and frozen batter, which they may not have otherwise done (“a blessing in disguise”). Some farmers’ market vendors were forced to set up “pop up shops” on empty lots, engaging with customers in a new way (connecting largely via social media) so that vendors could be found in a different location week by week. This of course was happening while farmers’ markets (and the local government land owners) figured out how to operate under new COVID conditions.
Food security is at the top of mind for many
In terms of food security at the household level, emergency food providers were busy in April and May. At that time we had heard of almost 475 households accessing assistance with food at the Salvation Army Food Bank— 95 were new at that time. Land to Table looks forward to connecting with this group again this fall to find out how trends have shifted and changed and what is anticipated for the uncertain months to come.
The Good Food Box North Okanagan (a regional bulk buying produce program making fresh food and veg more accessible to families) certainly saw a major spike in demand in April through June. They were providing hundreds of sponsored food boxes to school families and seniors through collaboration with the School District and Nexus Seniors program. We would also put new collaborations in the silver lining category!
As our growing season comes to a close here, so begins another season of uncertainty. Food security will be top of mind for many!
No Rest for the Wicked
Despite the uncertainty, shifting markets, pivot to online sales, inconsistent market attendance, etc., farmers seem to be ending the season on a strong note. There is lots of produce and customers are consistent.
But there is no rest for the wicked (or the eternally important people who grow our food)… Land to Table hopes to engage farmers in the late fall and winter to debrief on how this crazy year has gone and what can be imagined for next year. More specifically, we look forward to hearing from folks about ideas for marketing local food (to locals) and how agri-tourism has/is changing. Stay tuned for a network wide call addressing this theme.