Nestled in the colourfully chaotic flower garden encompassing Sideroad Farm, Amy Kitchen’s sun-browned face flits between appreciation and concern.
Sixteen months past the initial pandemic lockdown in March 2020, Kitchen is in the enviable position of having her Grey County organic on-farm business rocket past its five-year growth plan.
“There’s a lot more people who found out about our business because of the way we were operating and offering the online sales and home delivery and a relatively safe space,” she said. “And that’s been a really positive thing.”
Why it matters: The pandemic is forcing direct marketing businesses to rapidly alter their business plans to accommodate accelerated growth.
On the weekend when the March lockdown was announced, the on-farm store had 20 people filling their bags before they closed down in-person shopping altogether, said Kitchen.
The switch to e-commerce was rapid, and within 24 hours of launching their online storefront through Local Line, the farm hit its quota for the week and had to shut down.
“We never really felt like that feeling of ‘oh my goodness, our sales are dropping off,” she said. “It just went — it just skyrocketed. So, we’ve been fortunate that we’ve actually done pretty well.”
When the province relaxed pandemic protocols in the summer of 2020, Kitchen said farmer’s markets and in-person purchases more than compensated for the mild drop in online orders.
“We really focused on serving our community, and in turn, they supported us in a huge, huge way and continue to do so,” she said. “That’s been the reason why our business has been a success.”
However, success comes with personal trade-offs she isn’t sure will work with their long-term business strategy.
Pre-pandemic Kitchen and her husband Patrick shared the planting, tending and harvesting of eight acres of mixed vegetables, three-quarters of an acre of cut flowers, and 3,000 pasture-raised chickens through the summer. COVID demand added 50 pigs to their roster, along with online orders and homeschooling their children.
The tasks, although necessary, ate so much of their time they could no longer farm the land themselves. So instead, they hired people to work their fields, package and prepare orders so they could manage administrative and employee paperwork and demands.
“You have to be careful that your popularity doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the business,” she said. “And that you still have the time to farm because that has been our single biggest challenge.”
The initial lockdown saw a five-fold increase in weekly demand and 2020 sales triple, balancing out the loss of hospitality sales, and as the province reopens, there isn’t any slowing down.
“We’re just trying to figure out a way to get back to the point where we can enjoy it,” she said. “And feel like we’re on top of the production again, and not just the production on top of (us).”
When Josh and Emma Butler launched J&E Meats in 2018 to direct market their beef, lamb and chicken, sales were so strong they built a brick-and-mortar on-farm shop that opened in June 2019.
The Croton-area couple planned an official opening for the spring of 2020. While the pandemic provided numerous challenges, Emma Butler said it grew their business exponentially, allowing them to scale it into something workable as a family.
Initially, she wanted to wait a year to develop a website and e-commerce platform for the shop, but the pandemic forced her hand. She tied a point-of-sale program to the site that allowed her to track inventory and sales effectively, fulfill orders, process payments, deal with customer feedback and resolve issues.
“In the long term, we’re going to see that pay off,” Butler said, adding COVID-19 has made consumers savvier. “(Customers) are factoring me into their schedules and in their budgets more than ever.”
Butler took to social media to market their farm story, offer insight into rural and farm life through her Instagram reels, and increase her customer base, which she did with great success.
The pandemic provided challenges and highlighted gaps in processing, forcing the Butlers to reassess their on-farm business plan direction and increase control over their production.
Butler had the livestock to cover early increased demand but there was limited access to abattoirs with the capacity to harvest and process the animals. Additionally, packaging, including bags, wrapping string, and paper shortages, further delayed products from getting into customers’ hands.
“We want to be able just to have everything right in our backyard, and be able to do it all ourselves (and) have that quality control,” she said.
While Butler isn’t quite ready for that level of expansion, it’s closer than she dreamed it would be a year ago.
The pandemic tested the business’s sustainability and proved it to be a solid contributor to the farm’s bottom line, and it can provide a future for their three children.
“This is very much our succession plan for our farm; it adds an element to our operation that we didn’t have before,” she said. “Farming is our career, so it’s nice that through J&E Meats...we’ve been able to really solidify that to our community and ourselves.”
Initially, the province failed to recognize farmers markets as essential services. As a result, the Farmers’ Markets of Ontario (FMO) lobbied diligently to get the proper designation and craft safety protocols to open in June 2020.
“The pandemic was in its height, and there was a lot of fear from organizers right through to the vendors, so those (30) markets that didn’t open, the majority of them opened this year,” said Catherine Clark, FMO executive director. “That said, last year, we had five brand new farmers markets wanting to join FMO.”
The 2021 season is off to an excellent start. Twenty-nine of the closed markets returned, and eight new ones were created, she said.
“The markets are doing extremely well. They did extremely well last year… they couldn’t keep up, they had to keep coming back with more product,” she said. “This year is the same. People are looking for the markets and looking to buy local.”
Local has resonated much higher through the pandemic, said Clark, noting shoppers have called her office looking for information on vendors in their area to connect directly where the markets aren’t yet open.
“We’re quite happy about that,” she said. “The support is out there.”
Volume tested everything
Local Line, an Ontario e-commerce software provider that connects producers with consumers via an online storefront, saw a 4,300 per cent increase in platform use from mid-March to mid-April 2020, said Cole Jones, the CEO.
The exercise provided an opportunity to improve workflow efficiency, develop new features and partner with other service providers to build software solutions.
“You feel like you’re solid, you’re good, you’ve got all your features in place, and then 5,000 farmers come in the door, and you’re like, ‘oh man, you guys are really testing everything,’” Jones said. “It was an acceleration of things that we would have figured out, but we had the opportunity to figure them out all at once.”
Most of the 5,700 farmers added in the first 90 days were individual producers, like Sideroad Farms, and were looking to maintain service to existing customers and grow their base, food hubs, wholesalers, and farmers markets.
COVID-19 exposed society’s newest generations to the viability of small-scale farming as a career choice, said Jones. They could see an approach to agriculture using a culturally and fundamentally different decision-making process.
“The special thing about local food, and the special thing about this whole movement, is that for the first time, the farmer owns the relationship,” Jones said. “They are ultimately the ones that are in exact control of their destiny, of the products they grow, the business they want to run, and how they want to do that.”
The new outlook enables young farmers to secure their future as independent entrepreneurs, find good access to markets and develop a good, loyal customer base, he said.
“If we have programs that can help them, then, frankly, we feel like it’s our responsibility to at least make it available to them,” he said. “It’s a pretty meaningful time of growth for us, that’s for sure. Every day we actually have farmers that chat-in from around the world wanting to sign up for Local Line.”