British Columbia

Vancouver Island farmers pivot to online sales amidst COVID-19 uncertainty

With sales to restaurants mostly dried up and low attendance at farmers markets, some B.C. farmers are worrying whether they'll find buyers for the first COVID-era harvest.

With sales to restaurants mostly dried up, some farmers worry what will come of the first COVID-era harvest

Farmers are exploring online sales as COVID-19 impacts their ability to sell to restaurants, and attendance at farmers markets is down. (Josee St-Onge/CBC)

The moment of truth is coming for Shawn Dirksen's farm, when they bring in the harvest over the next two weeks. 

Dirksen owns Northstar Organics, a mid-sized produce and berry farm on Vancouver Island, and the next harvest is the first since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

How well it sells will tell them a lot about what the future holds, he says.

"The consequences for farmers haven't fully landed yet," said Dirksen.

There are already some troubling signs. Nearly 40 per cent of his product goes to local restaurants, business that have all but dried up, he says.

"I think it would be a big challenge to actually fill in that 40 per cent gap," Dirksen said.

But they're trying, with farmers and farmers markets on Vancouver Island looking to pivot their business models in light of COVID-19 .

Dirksen is refocusing on direct-to-consumer sales, including launching an online store with several other small farms. He is also continuing to bring his product to local farmers markets, but they are also facing challenges.

Attendance down 90 per cent

Despite being considered an essential service, the Esquimalt Farmers Market has cut the number of vendors from nearly 70 down to 15. Katrina Dwulit runs the market and says the reduction is in part to make room for distancing between sellers, but she says their crowds have also dwindled, down from nearly 2,000 people at their peak, to just 150 people in the last few weeks.

"Crowds at market are very, very small, so farmers are losing a significant amount of money there as well." said Dwulit. 

People's reluctance to go out is understandable, says Dwulit, but she points to the fact that food sold at a local market is handled by many fewer people than food in a grocery store.

"Some of these farms are so small we only have one or two people working with the produce.=," said Dwulit. "Local farms care so much about the food they grow so there is a lot of care in how it's handled."

$55K to move markets online

On March 27, the B.C. government announced $55,000 for the B.C. Association of Farmers' Markets to help markets move their sales online. Around 70 farmers markets across the province, including the Esquimalt Farmers Market, have tapped into those funds and are using an online portal called Local Line to sell directly to customers.

"Some of them ... they are online markets only these days, ourselves it's complementary to our physical market," said Dwulit

As for Dirksen and Northstar Organics, he says he is hopeful that this shift in how people buy his produce will work out both in the short term and in the long run.

"It seems this whole crisis has made people more conscious about being supportive of local food. I really hope the uptick in preorders and online orders will keep most of us afloat."

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