‘Good for the spirit’: Northern Ontarians turn to gardening during COVID-19

People in the north are snapping up seeds so that they can grow their own food — and find a slice of serenity
By Charnel Anderson - Published on May 14, 2020
This year, orders at Thunder Bay’s Superior Seed Producers have gone up around 400 per cent. (Courtesy of Jennifer de Bakker)

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THUNDER BAY — With her oldest child, Mabel, being kept home from junior kindergarten because of provincewide coronavirus-related school closures, Jennifer de Bakker thought planting a full garden would provide a great learning opportunity. “Because my daughter isn’t in school, and she doesn’t love learning on the iPad, I thought, What can we do to teach her something different and practical?” So the de Bakkers had planter boxes made for the spare lot next to their family home in Thunder Bay. But when de Bakker and her husband, Johnny, went online to purchase seeds last month, they were faced with a problem many other people around the globe have been encountering: many of the seeds were sold out. 

When the de Bakkers first visited the website of Superior Seed Producers, a local seed-saving collective, they say there was a wide selection available — but, when they went to purchase seeds the next day, many of the items were gone. “So then we panicked and bought whatever we could,” says Johnny. All the tomato varieties were out of stock, but the couple managed to score radishes, beets, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, herbs, and sunflowers. 

Superior Seed Producers have since entirely sold out of their seed offerings — and they’re not the only ones reporting increased demand. Many companies have temporarily stopped taking orders, and shipping times have grown significantly longer. 

Evalisa McIllfaterick, a member of Superior Seed Producers and the owner of Root Cellar Gardens, a market garden in Gillies township, 30 minutes outside Thunder Bay, says the demand for local seeds has been “through the roof.” This year, Superior Seed Producers’ orders have gone up around 400 per cent, she says, adding that she’s been getting more questions about gardening than ever before: “The interest is there. People seem way more interested. People were sourcing and buying local seeds like they haven’t before.”  

As the federal government announces aid for farmers and food producers hit hard by restaurant closures and fewer trips to the grocery store during the COVID-19 pandemic, many consumers, including the de Bakkers, are becoming increasingly aware of where their food comes from — and they’re trying their hand at growing their own. 

For the de Bakkers, gardening offers a way to supplement their daughter’s homeschooling and to control their food sources. “Instead of buying cucumbers that come from either southern Ontario or somewhere in the States, now they come from our garden, 30 feet away,” says Johnny. 

Charles Levkoe, the Canada Research Chair in sustainable food systems and an associate professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Lakehead University, says he is amazed at how many gardens and raised beds he’s seen pop up around the community. “There’s a lot of new gardeners that are setting stuff up,” he says. 

Levkoe thinks there could be a number of reasons for increased seed sales — most of them related to COVID-19. Public-health guidelines mean that more people are staying at home, and with a lot of extra time on their hands, many are tackling projects they’ve wanted to do for a while anyway, such as gardening. There’s also been a resurgence of “domesticity,” says Levkoe: “You’re seeing this with a lot of things. People are baking bread. People are doing crafts, like making their own masks, and I think gardening is kind of like that.” Fears about food security may be motivating new gardeners in the northwest, he adds: “I do think there’s a bit of fear, and I do think it’s legitimate. People are worried about ‘Where am I going to get my food from? Could there be disruption in the supply chain?” 

However, Sylvain Charlebois, senior director at the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax, says that, in terms of food security, Canadians are “going to be fine,” though he admits “it’s not going to be perfect.” As the economy enters a recession — some are saying it already has — Charlebois expects the cost of food to rise. “Our social contract with the food industry is going to change,” says Charlebois. “For the longest time, consumers wanted cheap food, and I think what is about to happen is they will see the true cost of food.” 

Communities in northwestern Ontario rely heavily on long-distance truck-transportation systems to deliver food from other parts of the country. According to the Thunder Bay and Area Food Strategy’s 2015 Community Food Security Report Card, “Food tends to come into Thunder Bay from the western provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, via Winnipeg or Calgary. Some food is imported from the United States and southern Ontario via the Toronto food terminal.” The report says that, on average, food travels 3,500 kilometres before it reaches Thunder Bay. 

Erin Beagle, the executive director at Roots to Harvest, a non-profit focused on urban agriculture in Thunder Bay, sees northwestern Ontario’s reliance on transportation systems and the community's interest in food security as intertwined. “We are so reliant on transportation systems here ... and we need to be able to provide for ourselves in certain ways,” Beagle says. “We have a sense of need to take care of our own.” 

Northwestern Ontario’s food systems are also complicated by the region’s short, cool growing season. Beagle says she’s “a little bit pessimistic about a big impact of people growing their own, impacting at a systems level, only because there’s only so many things we can grow” but adds that it could give people an increased sense of control over their food. 

Charlebois agrees that gardens allow people to feel more food-secure. “These initiatives are very powerful because they make you feel good. It’s good for the spirit, and you feel in control,” he says. “Those are the types of things that I think people are longing for right now.” 

Since managing to get their own seeds, the de Bakkers have planted cucumber, tomato, and flower seedlings — they’re hoping that’ll help ease at least some of the pressure on the local food-supply chain. Meanwhile, Mabel is keeping a close eye on the garden’s progress. “Every morning she gets up and runs to the kitchen to see how the little seedlings are doing and if they’ve sprouted yet,” says Johnny. 

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.


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