How COVID-19 could forever change the way Ontarians buy food

After the pandemic shut down markets, small farms from the across the province went online — and some say the shift could be here to stay
By Rebecca Tucker - Published on Aug 10, 2020
Since March, an increasing number of small family farms in Ontario have been turning to e-commerce. (iStock/carlosgaw)

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Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, food — where to buy it, how to buy it, where to eat it —has been a consistent headline-maker. On many farms, it has been a make-or-break crisis.

In the case of medium- to large-scale producers whose main sources of livelihood were restaurants and exports, the pandemic was an instant crisis, as supply chains were disrupted, foreign labour dependencies were compromised, and product backlog became a serious — and potentially bankrupting — issue. So much so that, in early May, the Justin Trudeau government pledged $252 million in subsidies to help support the Canadian farming and agriculture industries.

Small-scale farmers, meanwhile, faced a problem that was similar in gravity but entirely different in scale: How could they reach their consumers directly if their regular avenues, such as farmers’ markets, were simply no longer an option?

The answer, as it so often is these days, was the internet.

“It's been an unbelievable change,” says Theresa Schumilas, president of the Open Food Network, an open-source online food hub (sort of a digital central marketplace) where farmers can set up e-stores without having to independently build out their own website infrastructure. “When I think back to, like, let's just say January, or even last season, I was out there at workshops, webinars, conferences, talking to small farmers about online sales and e-commerce and helping them find solutions that work for them. And, almost always, farmers would say, ‘My consumers aren’t interested in buying online.’ And that changed, like, overnight.”

In March, Schumilas says, the Open Food Network was averaging 20 to 30 calls a day from farmers looking to get online. Pre-pandemic, the network hosted about 200 online stores for farmers in Canada. Once the pandemic hit, that number ballooned to around 800 — about 90 per cent of which were from Ontario, Schumilias estimates.

Indeed, across the province, a number of small family farms — of the size and scale that would otherwise depend primarily on Community Supported Agriculture subscription drops and farmers’-market stalls to make ends meet — dipped their toes into e-commerce, in many instances for the first time. Across the board, “food hub” platforms, such as Open Food Network, proved to be invaluable for these farmers, many of whom simply lacked the time or knowledge to effectively establish a digital store from scratch. Paul Sawtell, the founder of Toronto-based 100km Foods, already worked with a wide roster of farmers pre-COVID-19, acting as a wholesaler for restaurants and markets for farmers and producers within a 100-kilometre radius of the GTA (as the name implies). He had never offered direct-to-consumer sales, but, when the pandemic hit, making the pivot was a no-brainer — he, essentially, transformed into a direct-to-consumer food hub.

Sawtell says that, while he didn’t find switching from commercial to consumer distribution a significant hurdle, he had to work closely with farmers to ensure their supply could keep up with an entirely new pace of demand: previously, his producers had been accustomed to regular bulk orders; now, they were filling orders piecemeal. And, comparatively, the supply required for direct-to-consumer demand is entirely unpredictable. “Unfortunately, there's a lot more waste because we are trying to predict what individual consumers are going to buy week to week, and, when often wrong, you can't find a home for that product,” he says. “This is something that we didn't really have in our wholesale business: just-in-time ordering, especially for fresh produce. So now we're kind of buying on speculation, which is the first time we've done that in 12 years. It's a moving target.”

On Open Food Network, Schumilas says, many farmers saw their order volume double for a given time period, meaning that many of them “shut down” their online stores early to keep up with demand. “Normally, they might be open from Monday to Wednesday for pre-orders,” she says. “But they would be open for 24 hours and fill all of the orders they could physically handle.”

Another such hub, Local Line, saw an increase in the number of farms using its services; Peterborough-based Cedar Grove is one such farm. Its owner, Scott King, says making the shift to digital — a first for the farm — was an obvious move. “Starting in March, we were selling almost all of our produce online,” says King, adding that the delivery radius for Cedar Grove, which is in Omeeme, in the Kawartha Lakes region of Ontario, is about 40 kilometres — the customers he was serving, King says, were mainly in Peterborough.

Indeed, as online delivery became the norm for food shoppers (which is to say, everyone), small farms migrating their services online serviced a largely urban population of individuals residing in medium- to large-scale cities, for whom online shopping is perhaps more of a routine than it is for those in more rural communities. And, while King’s customer base is modest enough that a single van can service all deliveries, Schumilas says that food hubs solve what she calls the “last-mile problem”: helping farmers get their produce from the farms into the hands of consumers, often by setting up a central pickup point.

But, as the severity of the pandemic wanes and restrictions on businesses are lifted, online retail is proving less essential for farmers — King, for instance, says his customers have, with a few exceptions, come back to the farmers’ market. He’s not ready to close up his e-shop, though: all other things being equal, the pandemic has, regardless of industry, been an ongoing case of “wait and see.”

“We're going to keep this service because we think it's important just for those immunocompromised folks, if nothing else,” he says. “And our personal thought on it is that, if there is a resurgence of COVID or some trouble with markets transitioning indoors in the fall, we're keeping the channel basically open for those potential issues.”

Schumilas, however, believes that COVID-19 has created a watershed moment in online food retail for “alternative” grocery sellers, particularly when it comes to young urban shoppers who are already accustomed to shopping online or via their mobile device and may be attracted to a more ethical, sustainable methods of food production. She thinks the shift is here to stay. 

“The numbers of people buying online — I don't think those numbers have gone down in the past month or so since we've had grocery stores back open,” she says. “And we might have a very different demographic, because we're open-source and because we're not for profit, so we're kind of this values-aligned solution to buying food. I think this is permanent. And, it’s funny to say, but COVID did it.”

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