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Creative pivots help small-scale food producers, sellers weather pandemic

COVID-19, hot and dry weather, grasshoppers and flea beetles made for a challenging growing season for Manitoba’s small food producers

COVID-19 threatened their markets and pests plagued their crops, but two small-scale vegetable growers say this has been a rewarding growing season.

“In all regards, it’s been our best year,” said Chad Wiens, who, along with Laura Tait, runs Heart Acres Farm south of Winnipeg.

When the pandemic hit Manitoba in March, it was unclear if farmers’ markets would be able to open and farmers supplying restaurants also faced market uncertainty.

Last year Heart Acres Farm sold at two farmers’ markets a week while also selling around 50 CSA (community-supported agriculture) veggie box subscriptions, Wiens said. This year, they doubled their CSA capacity.

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People seemed eager to subscribe to farm-direct veggies.

“This year no one’s had trouble either increasing their CSA or finding customers,” said Wiens. He added that a few grocery stores also approached them to buy produce.

Some customers, however, had difficulty paying for subscriptions after they were laid off or had work hours cut. Heart Acres addressed this by creating a “solidarity share” model, inspired by a farm in upstate New York.

Higher-income customers, which Wiens said is the typical CSA customer base, were asked to pay slightly more for their share, which then subsidized lower-income customers. They also allowed people to pay weekly instead of up front.

More people with uncertain incomes were able to buy in, said Wiens. Higher-income customers seemed happy to share their money, he added.

“We’re definitely going to keep that, because the response has been great,” he said.

Justin Girard and Britt Embry of Hearts and Roots farm near Elie pivoted in almost the opposite direction of Wiens and Tait. They closed their CSA program.

While the pandemic did throw their established clientele into flux, closing the CSA resulted from changing priorities as the farm is shifting toward fruits, perennial crops and diversification.

“(CSA members) pay you for that season’s produce, not your 10-year plan,” said Girard.

Closing the CSA allowed them to focus more time and energy on developing other parts of the farm, including their new sheep flock.

They established an online farm store where, instead of buying boxes of mixed veggies, people could customize orders which were then delivered to a centralized location.

Girard said they feared this would be too much work, but it turned out to be a great model that they expect to stick to. It was also a learning experience as it allowed them to see which produce their customers gravitated toward.

Pests ‘horrendous’

Both Girard and Wiens said their crops faced heavy pressure from grasshoppers and flea beetles. Both farms don’t use chemical pesticides.

“Grasshoppers were terrible, worse than any other year,” said Wiens.

Heart Acres Farm covers crops with fabric netting to keep out pests such as flea beetles and grasshoppers.
photo: Heart Acres Farm

Between late July and mid-August, about two-thirds of their fields had to be covered with white row cover (like mosquito netting for crops).

Flea beetles were “horrendous,” Girard said.

Flea beetles target canola and other members of the brassica family, which includes popular veggies like broccoli and kale.

Varieties they can transplant into the fields are usually strong enough to withstand flea beetle pressure, said Girard. Others, like arugula and turnips, are direct seeded and pest pressure is too high to grow those at all.

This year, some bugs got through the netting covering and did damage, though not to economic levels.

“That’s just living with canola at this point,” Girard said. “It’s a substantial headache for us, but with time and cover we’ve managed to negotiate how to adapt to it.”

Wiens added that with many hot, dry days in August, water also became an issue.

Market opportunities

Despite initial fears, many farmers’ markets were able to open.

“We feel very proud that we’ve been able to keep the market open,” said Marilyn Firth, director of St. Norbert Farmers’ Market. “We have had to do quite a bit of work to manage such a space in the environment that exists under COVID, but we feel like it’s gone actually very well.”

The market had to reduce its number of vendors due to COVID-19 safety regulations and restrict how many customers entered the site at a time. Attendance has been down because of that, Firth said.

Earlier in the year, the market opened an online store and allowed customers to pick up at the site on market days via a drive-through system. In spring, the drive-through saw about 200 customers every market day.

This dwindled over the summer, but Firth said she expected it would ramp up as temperatures drop again. The market is open year round.

The St. Norbert market participated in the pilot of the Manitoba Food Currency Program through Direct Farm Manitoba.

“We’re actually really excited about this program,” Firth said.

This program also had to adapt to pandemic conditions.

The currency was originally planned as a voucher-based system. Direct Farm Manitoba would give vouchers to community organizations to distribute to people who have trouble accessing fresh, healthy food. People could then use these as currency at farmers’ markets, and vendors would hand in the vouchers for reimbursement through the program.

St. Norbert Farmers’ Market (pictured here in July) opened this year but had to limit customers and vendors to meet COVID-19 safety requirements.
photo: St. Norbert Farmers' Market

Some markets were unable to open for safety reasons, so the program pivoted to allow some community groups a budget they could use to order food through Fireweed Food Co-op, which would deliver to the organizations to distribute to community members.

“Which ended up actually being really productive because we were able to see a number of different ways we could deliver the program and still provide greater access to fresh farm food,” said Kristie Beynon, executive director of Direct Farm Manitoba.

The currency program ran for 15 weeks, and provided food to about 155 families weekly said Beynon. Markets in Morden and Carman also took part.

Feedback was “humongously positive” from customers and vendors, Beynon said. Direct Farm Manitoba is surveying participants with an eye to expand the program next year if it can get the funding.

Fireweed Food Co-op’s food hub (formerly known as Farm Fresh Food Hub) also launched in pilot form this year after receiving provincial funding last fall.

The food hub acts as a middleman for small food producers, explained director Anna Sigrithur.

The hub is an aggregate point for food, including vegetables, fruits, meats, bread and honey, to make for easier access for restaurants and grocery stores. As a pilot, the hub ran on a consignment model this year with plans to scale up a more wholesaler model as it grows.

This way, small food producers don’t need to scale up to get a bigger market reach, said Sigrithur.

It was a challenging year to begin, she said. They expected restaurants to be the hub’s biggest customer, but the service industry has been hampered by closures and restrictions and is very risk adverse at the moment. It’s hard to convince buyers to move to a new supplier that is, by nature, a bit more expensive, said Sigrithur.

However, they have high hopes of scaling up operations next year, said Sigrithur. Fireweed Food Co-op is hosting information sessions for interested farmers at the end of September and early October.

About the author

Reporter

Geralyn Wichers

Geralyn Wichers grew up on a hobby farm near Anola, Manitoba, where her family raised cattle, pigs and chickens. Geralyn graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in 2019 and was previously a reporter for The Carillon in Steinbach. Geralyn is also a published author of science fiction and fantasy novels.

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