Farmers who market directly to consumers are seeing unprecedented demand for their products – and many are struggling to keep up.
At Side Road Farm, near Walter’s Falls, the Kitchen family has an on-farm market where they’ve sold their own organic vegetables, chickens raised as part of the artisanal chicken program and flowers.
March and April are supposed to be quieter times, says Amy Kitchen, giving them time to get seeds planted in their greenhouses and then into fields.
That’s until COVID-19 hit, which caused a run on food in grocery stores that also extended to farmers who sell direct to consumers.
Kitchen, who farms with her husband Patrick, has seen a 400 per cent increase in demand almost overnight.
Why it matters: While the surge in demand is welcomed, it has been a challenge for farmers doing direct sales to scale up supplies while at the same time their usual marketing channels are restricted or shut down altogether.
The Kitchens, like others, have had to find solutions to meet that increased demand, while making sure their families, workers and customers maintain required social distances and stay healthy and safe.
“It’s a good thing, but it’s a little bit nuts trying to keep up,” she said. “The biggest thing right now for us is trying to keep the food flowing in. Trying to find meat especially has been hard.”
Nearby lies the Buschbeck farm, which has been selling seven or eight lambs per week at Toronto farmers markets and direct to restaurants and hotels for years. They sell their meat fresh, butchered on the Wednesday before it gets to market on Saturday.
Those markets were turned upside down as COVID-19 closed restaurants as well as farmers’ markets.
Andreas Buschbeck and his partner Nicole Heber are now working to find new routes to their consumers, but they are finding those routes time consuming and expensive. They’ve also had to reinvent a critical part of their sheep enterprise during lambing season. They have 500 ewes on the farm.
“Our whole business model is based on money we get at the markets,” says Buschbeck.
One of their new outlets is at Side Road Farm. They, like many other farmers, have quickly turned to digital management of their supply chain, orders and payment.
They quickly updated their website and moved to online ordering for their customers – most in Toronto two hours away.
Buschbeck and Heber are still going to Toronto on Saturdays and, along with some other vendors at their previous farmers’ markets – Brickworks and Wychwood Barns – have tables set up where they place customer orders for pick up, from an acceptable distance.
They no longer take payment other than online orders, which has limited their ability to serve walk-up customers.
As of early April the Buschbeck was up to half of the usual amount of lamb going to farmers markets, although there was a nice increase in demand around Easter. They are also doing home deliveries, even though it is an expensive option.
“It’s the delivery that’s the hard part,” says Buschbeck. “It costs a lot money for delivery, especially when we’re two hours away.”
Kitchen also has a driver hired for delivery, but it’s not a highly profitable part of the operation. In fact, she says the 400 per cent increase in demand hasn’t meant much more profit. They are having to source food from other farmers to fill the demand, yet they aren’t raising prices because of their commitment to make sure sure farmers get what they need and to keep food affordable. That doesn’t leave much profit.
“It’s more of a service at this point and we’re happy to do it. It’s important. People say feel safe coming here,” says Kitchen.
There’s also a lot more administration – managing the website, packaging orders and communicating with consumers. At the Kitchen farm, they put out orders when people send a text message that they are 20 minutes from arrival.
Seed sales have also been through the roof. Kitchen says her seeds were sold out shortly after she put out the display stand.
Emma Butler and her husband Josh have also seen a huge jump in demand for their direct-to-consumer sales of beef and lamb from their farm at the north end of Chatham-Kent. Their business is called J&E Meats.
“Our business has exploded. There’s no other word for it,” says Emma Butler. “It’s a completely weird state to be in.”
Once they have filled their orders from early April, they will be out of meat. Butler has been pulling beef from her home stock to fill some orders. They took another beef animal to the abattoir on April 6, but that animal will have to hang for 25 days and then the very busy abattoir will have to find time to cut and package it.
She has animal processing spaces booked through December, but other people who want to have animals processed will have a challenge.
She says the abattoir also has a storefront, which is also seeing unprecedented demand.
“I see all the new faces, the new customers and wonder: ‘Where have you all been?’”
They had their online ordering system set up in January, which was fortunate, as they were able to direct the extra traffic there. They have an on-farm store, but have closed it as they are out of product. They hope to open again perhaps by mid-April.
They also have on-farm pickup at set times, with the meat in a labelled cooler under an awning. Butler also does deliveries.
Online marketing systems have seen crazy increases in volume. Local Line, an Ontario online system for managing direct-to-consumer sales is putting thousands of farmers and hundreds of farmers’ markets across North America onto its system, says Local Line’s Cole Jones.
“In most cases, online sales are the only remaining sales channel for a farmer to sell their products,” he said. “It’s a necessity if they want to make sales. We are finding that when they move online, most of them are selling more through their Local Line stores than they ever sold normally at the market or through other more traditional sales channels.”
Farmers’ markets essential?
The selling season is about to begin for 180 markets across the province connecting farmers with consumers.
Food outlets have been designated as essential services, which means that farmers markets should be able to open, says Catherine Clark, executive director of Farmers Markets Ontario (FMO).
However, social distancing requirements will change the ways farmers’ markets operate and will alter their crowded and social nature.
“People’s perception is that markets are where people buy lattes and baked goods, but some people buy all their groceries at farmers’ markets,” says Heber.
It’s managing the balance between the essential nature of local food markets with the culture around farmers’ markets that will be the challenge for organizers and the local health units that allow the markets to open.
Wychwood Barns and the Brickworks markets, where Buschbeck Farms sold their lamb, are run by the City of Toronto and they were quickly shut down.
Clark says that Toronto remains averse to markets opening again because the city considers farmers’ markets to be special events and it has said all special events are prohibited until the end of June. Other markets are in discussion with their local health units.
She says food will be the only product allowed at the markets. That means markets such as the one in Carp, near Ottawa, which has one section with arts and crafts and a farmers’ market with food outside, will have to close the arts and crafts area in order to continue the food market. Markets need to communicate with their vendors, she says, and then the community has to know what the new expectations will be.
“They will have some work to do controlling the crowd” in order to maintain social distancing, she said.
She recommends markets make a plan and take that plan to the local health unit, before a strategy is imposed.
“Farmers need an outlet to sell,” she says.
The Kitchens usually get 30 per cent of their revenue from the Collingwood Farmers Market. Amy Kitchen says she is worried it won’t open, but is still waiting to hear a final decision from the market.
Staying safe and delivering food
Farmers who provide food directly to consumers are performing an essential service, but they are also putting themselves at risk. Most farmers can’t afford to get sick.
“Do I feel 100 per cent comfortable with it? No,” says Kitchen.
They made the decision on April 7 to move to only online ordering. Customers can then pickup their order, ready to go in their store. This will further reduce interactions between store staff and customers.
Before that decision, their children weren’t allowed in the store when it was open, and they separated themselves from the store too, as a hedge against making sure they are healthy to operate the farm.
They had two staff working in the store and installed plexiglass dividers. Buyers who went to the store had to stand in a square marked on the floor while staff got the items they wish to buy. Only one person is allowed in the store at a time.
Most customers take social distancing seriously, but there are a few who show up with a full car and the family dog and expect to take a walk around the farm. In the past they’ve wanted to be that community farm, but no longer.
“We need better signage and to rope off the parking lot. Most people are really respectful and understand.”
Buschbeck and Heber have found that some people are avoiding them because they know they are spending time in the city.
They say the rules for pickup at the Toronto drop-off point are strict.
“There are pretty clear rules and everybody adheres to it because they want to buy their food,” says Buschbeck.
A short-term fad or long-term trend?
Farmers have dramatically scaled up their supply lines and invested in online marketing systems to manage sales, but will the demand continue?
When people emerge from isolation and travel begins again, will everyone go back to eating in restaurants and expecting food instantly?
Buschbeck hopes that customers will continue to order online, now that they have the system set up, as it helps to know what will be sold in advance.
“Having everything presold is a big change for us.”
He hopes that the increased interest in local food will continue when society returns to normal.
“This is an educational moment for farmgate producers,” says Butler. Consumers are learning that “food just doesn’t show up.”
She says that she doesn’t see as much panic buying as a couple of weeks ago, but people are now looking further ahead — which is leading them to look at how they can long-term fill their freezers.
“People are looking at things a bit deeper. They are changing the way they shop and think. I don’t think it will be a fad.”
Kitchen is forming relationships with more local farmers and even the restaurants they used to serve but which are now serving ready-to-eat meals stocked at Side Road Farm.
A long-term change in the new normal will require more changes for most farmers who market directly.
“These are tricky times,” says Kitchen. “We need every single farm we can get, wherever you are at in terms of scale and start up.”