Prairie farmers find way to deliver local food

Many say that consumers are looking for ways to avoid the grocery store and buy more local food during the pandemic

Small farmers in Alberta have partnered with a company to deliver local products to consumers, addressing concerns of needing food during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The specialty boxes, created in partnership with farmers, the Alberta Association of Agricultural Societies and The Organic Box, have offered producers a way to sell more of their products.

As well, it provides consumers another avenue to get food, given some shortages at grocery stores, said Nicola Doherty, the marketing co-ordinator with the agricultural societies association.

“It’s gone phenomenal,” she said on April 29. “Of our three boxes, the meat box north sold out in 36 hours, and we’re just about sold out of the south meat box and the pantry box.”

Doherty said farmers involved in the box program are participants of the province’s Open Farm Days, a week in August in which agriculture is celebrated and where city people are encouraged to visit farms.

Because of the pandemic, she said the agricultural societies association noticed farmers were doing more deliveries than usual, especially with grocery stores experiencing issues.

As well, some small farmers have experienced revenue losses because markets have closed.

To address those needs, Doherty said the organization reached out to The Organic Box to see whether it could help with distribution.

“I think this has been a help,” she said. “It’s not saving businesses; it’s not a Hail Mary, but it’s providing a different revenue stream.”

She said her sense is that it’s business as usual for small farmers who focus on direct sales.

Some, however, have been busier than ever.

John Doherty, with Stonepost Farms near Wildwood, Alta., said he has seen an increase in sales. He is participating in The Organic Box program and offers deliveries for customers.

Part of the reason behind the increase, he said, is consumers are looking to buy more local food given some shortages at groceries.

As well, he said, many people are avoiding supermarkets altogether to avoid potentially coming into contact with the virus.

“I think people are more interested in buying local,” John said. “We’re seeing the industrial food chain start to break down, particularly with meat packing plants.”

He said he’s managed to get his animals to a processor, but many are beginning to be booked up well into the summer.

“Luckily we’ve had a good relationship with them,” he said. “They are booked for May and June, and I’ve already booked for the fall just so I have processing capacity guaranteed.”

Laurel Winter, the farm manager with Winter’s Turkey near Dalemead, Alta., said The Organic Box program has helped.

She said people’s shopping habits are changing. They might not be able to browse shopping aisles, so they are turning to local producers, she said.

“The program exposes people to more local food and it’s a great opportunity for all of us,” Winter said.

Alex Raymond, the marketing co-ordinator with The Organic Box, an Edmonton-based company, said it’s been rapidly expanding over the past month.

He said the company’s ability to thrive also helps its farmer members.

He said it allows consumers to support local producers while staying clear of grocery stores.

Nicola said the program plans to offer different boxes in the future. There will be boxes with vegetables, specialty items, mushrooms, potatoes, as well as ones based on themes like grilling.

The new boxes will be reflective of the growing season. It’ll give consumers a sense of when certain foods are harvested, she said.

As well, the specialty boxes aren’t required to be organic, Nicola added.

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