Direct-to-consumer sales heat up for farmers

Many Canadians are buying food from local producers because of COVID-19, but it will take time to increase production

Many Canadians have turned to local farmers to fill their food needs and many producers are scrambling to meet the new demand.

“It’s (COVID-19) definitely increased sales,” said Mark Hoimyr, whose Box H Farm in Gladmar, Sask., produces grass-fed beef.

“It was easily double or more… what we would have normally delivered.”

However, meeting the needs of anxious consumers, spooked by food shortages at grocery stores, won’t be possible any time soon.

Chicken and fish producer Rudy Reimer, who operates Watersong Farms at Warren, Man., said he got lots of calls for his roasting chickens right after COVID-19 hit.

“Those went right away,” he said of the few hundred frozen birds he had on hand.

However, he’s all out now and is renovating his chicken barn, so he won’t have new chickens for a few months.

He’s also selling steelhead trout in frozen vacuum-packs to consumers, but that’s more challenging to arrange than moving thousands of fish through local restaurants and food service businesses and distributors, which made up most of his fish business until COVID-19 shut most of that down.

This is a common challenge in the direct-to-consumer farm sector. Most farmers who sell to the local market make some, many or most of their sales to individual consumers, but most also rely upon sales to restaurants, food service providers and retail outlets that might now be shut down or seriously reduced.

“Everything is changing so rapidly,” said Will Bergmann, a Winnipeg-area farmer who has a “community-supported agriculture” (CSA) vegetable operation that serves hundreds of urban people. People contribute money to the farm and get its vegetable production in return. This spring he’s heard from a lot more consumers.

But he also owns part of a Winnipeg restaurant that, like most restaurants, has closed its doors during the pandemic.

Regardless, he’s bullish on the prospects for CSAs and direct-to-consumer sales, now being highlighted by consumers’ desire to have a firmer connection to the production of their food.

“I think it’s a great opportunity,” said Bergmann.

“We’re starting to think more and more about local. We’re talking more and more about ‘Canadian.’”

Reimer chuckles good naturedly about the sales opportunities he unwittingly gave up when he emptied his barn at the end of the winter and undertook his renovations. But he’s pleased he can now think through how he’ll need to reconfigure his processing in the new era of social distancing.

When he’s slaughtering and cleaning chickens, he usually has around 15 workers involved, and they might need more space to do the same jobs.

His sales through the big St. Norbert’s farmers market will be constrained this summer by that institution’s newly imposed restrictions on shoppers. On a weekend that market often sees more than 10,000 consumers, but this summer only a few will be let in at one time. That complicates things.

Hoimyr is happy with his good fortune that the Regina grocery stores he supplies were already in the delivery business before COVID-19 struck. His grass-fed beef already had a home there and now more consumers are looking at it.

But he also can’t increase his supply any time soon. On his farm, the grass is still warming up from winter and green grass will be rare for weeks.

“It’s going to be a while before anything’s getting fat off grass,” said Hoimyr.

Beef cattle production can’t just be ramped up overnight.

It’s easier to do that with chickens because they have short production cycles, but for Reimer’s trout operation, which produces about 100 tonnes per year, it takes about a year for fingerlings to grow into adults suitable for harvesting.

Decisions he makes today about increasing or decreasing production won’t affect sales until 2021.

Still, with all the extra demands of dealing with direct-to-consumer production and sales, committed producers seem happy with the business.

“It gives me a lot of grey hair… but it’s a nice way to connect with consumers,” said Tara Davidson, whose Ponteix, Sask., ranch sells about 10 finished cattle per year to consumers on top of its main businesses of operating a cow-calf herd and a purebred herd.

“It’s a good way to connect with consumers and get them to experience the benefits of having a quarter or half (of) beef in their deep freeze.”

Hoimyr has been working in the local sales business for about three years and says he has “lots of learning and figuring” still to do.

But the challenges are part of what engages him.

“I really enjoy it,” he said.

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