B.C. food producers forge ahead in new COVID-19 reality
From moving online to adopting isolated working schedules, these are the measures B.C. farmers are taking
The upheaval caused by COVID-19 has revealed, quite literally, how the sausage is made when it comes to Canada's food supply chain.
In the past few months, we've seen worries around labour — including temporary foreign workers and domestic workers; how the outbreaks at many meat processing plants crippled a supply chain and revealed difficult working conditions; how the entire shutdown of the restaurant industry led to surpluses in different kinds of produce and food products, and how panic-induced bulk buying could leave grocery shelves bare for days.
Behind the scenes, it has forced local farmers and food producers to adapt to meet the challenge of getting food on British Columbians' tables.
"It's been really difficult," says third generation egg farmer, Mark Siemens. His Abbotsford farm produces 41,000 free-range eggs a day.
Siemens, whose four family members also work on the farm, has had to adopt an isolated work schedule as a contingency in case one of them gets sick.
"We can't afford to all get sick at the same time because someone has got to take care of the animals," he said. "We've had to really isolate from one another ... That separation has really changed things there."
The organic potatoes grown by Pemberton's Anna Helmer have been a fixture at Lower Mainland farmers markets for years. But with the advent of COVID-19 and physical distancing measures, sales have fallen sharply.
"It hit like a ton of bricks. Those mid-March markets in Vancouver. All of a sudden, we were doing a quarter of the sales that I'm happy with," Helmer said.
Even if markets increasingly open up as restrictions loosen, Helmer isn't sure it'll make a difference.
"[If] you've got a lot more things at your stall, people will be willing to line up for however long it takes to get in there. Then they do a one-stop shop. They're not going to line up again to get just potatoes," she said.
Helmer is looking into online shopping and delivery.
"People still need to eat. I have something that is really tasty and practical."
Going online is what Amir Maan, operations manager at the Maan Farm in Abbotsford, is also working on. He's hoping his new ordering system will be up and running as the strawberries ripen within the next two weeks.
Maan says the biggest concern for the farm was whether their seven regular temporary foreign workers, who are in Mexico, would be able to come this season.
"These foreign workers, they are key leaders on our farm. They've been coming to our farm for over 15 years. They know just as much of the business as I do ... they've been around the entire time," Maan said. "It's like having seven farmers who are farming along with you."
While two workers were able to arrive via charter plane — along with other workers — the farm still had to be audited by the federal government to ensure that there were features like PPE and safe physical distancing to ensure a COVID-safe workplace.
Sonia Strobel, the founder and CEO of Skipper Otto, a fishing collective based in Vancouver, says the pandemic has been devastating for many small fisheries.
"We see fishing families all up and down this coast who have lost their markets for their catch. They were fishing for export markets ... [or] for the fresh restaurant market and of course, with all the restaurants closed, they have nowhere to sell their catch," Strobel said.
She says this is an opportunity to see how broader shifts need to happen in her industry.
"Our food systems have been broken. They've been long-convoluted supply chains geared at getting fish into export markets, geared at bringing in cheap fish from overseas that's often mislabelled, oftentimes coming from fisheries that are not sustainable or that exploit workers. What a great opportunity for us to rethink ... how we want to source seafood," she said.
But despite the challenges, B.C. food producers are eager to get fresh, local food into the homes of British Columbians.
Kevin Mammel, a dairy farmer from Agassiz, said he couldn't imagine it any other way.
"We're a strange bunch. We get up early. We stay up late. We work long hours. Sometimes, you don't get paid very much. But there's something about being a farmer ... there's just something in our blood, something in our DNA. It's just what we do."
With files from Margaret Gallagher