How's the harvest? Farmers reflect on six months of agriculture during the pandemic

At Crooked Lake Farm near Wetaskiwin, they couldn’t keep up with demand in March. Customers wanted to avoid busy grocery stores and load up their freezers with the farm-direct beef.

Alberta producers on supply, demand and the search for PPE

Answering the demand for organic vegetables in the time of COVID-19

1 year ago
Duration 2:03
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Canada many businesses were forced to shut operations but what do you do when your business is growing vegetables for restaurants? Owner of Reclaim Organics, Ryan Mason, explains how his company pivoted to creating an online store and doing home deliveries, a business move that has reaped plenty of success. 2:03

The situation looked dire at Reclaim Organics back in March. 

The farm near Pigeon Lake did most of its business with restaurants, supplying them with high-quality organic herbs and produce. 

"Almost overnight, that dried up," owner Ryan Mason told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "We only had about 10 per cent of that business left, for grab-and-go cafés and things like that."

Mason knew he would need to shift directions, and do it fast. He leaned on social media and online sales to drum up business for home delivery.

"We started trying to diversify our lineup, shifting what we grew," Mason said. "That included things like flowers and more of the bread-and-butter staples of vegetables."

The flowers turned out to be a big hit, with brisk sales at farmers markets and through retail outlets.

"People have really enjoyed beauty throughout the summer and during this COVID phase we're in," said Mason.

In fact, the flowers were so successful that Mason is looking to expand, with new varieties for next year.

"I think it's going to be a large chunk of our business, moving forward," he said.

Ranchers adapt to surge in demand

Some of the Crooked Lake Farm cattle, near Wetaskiwin, Alta. (Jill Burkhardt)

While Mason had to shift directions early in the pandemic, other producers saw a surge in demand for the products they already sold.

The Burkhardt family raises Hereford-Angus cross cattle at Crooked Lake Farm near Wetaskiwin, Alta. They couldn't keep up with demand in March as customers, wanting to avoid busy grocery stores, looked to load up their freezers with the farm-direct beef.

"As the summer went on and as things started to open up, we've sort of levelled off," Jill Burkhardt told Edmonton AM. "It's not that it has dropped off but our supply has been able to meet demand."

Pandemic or not, cattle don't adjust their needs. When it came to the cows, "it was pretty much business as usual," said Burkhardt. "Cows needed [to be] fed, cows needed [to be] checked."

The beginning of the pandemic shutdowns coincided with the farm's calving season, which is a busy time for the whole family.

"We have a young family, so it worked out in our favour, actually, with all of the kids' events being cancelled," Burkhardt said with a laugh.

Now, said Burkhardt, the farm is enjoying the tail end of a good grass-growing year and getting ready to bring their bulls in, which ends the breeding season. The cows will be out on pasture for at least another month before being gathered back to the farm for the winter.

Finding PPE was a struggle for grain farmers

Combining yellow peas and unloading as they go at Christi Friesen's grain farm near Peace River, Alta. (Christi Friesen)

For Christi Friesen, a grain farmer near Peace River, Alta., finding masks was a big challenge early in the pandemic.

Her family farms wheat, barley, peas and canola. Grain farming is a dusty operation and N-95 masks are required for day-to-day operations.

This spring, those masks were sold out everywhere.

However, Friesen was eventually able to find masks from a local supplier.

The family is now going full tilt with everyone working to get the crops off before the snow flies.

"Not last night, but the night before, we were combining through to 2 or 2:30 in the morning," Friesen said.

There's extra pressure this year, she said, since there have been a few poorer-than-average harvests in a row. Early snow last year meant not all the crops could be harvested.

"Everybody is anxious," said Friesen. "Everybody is nervous that we can't afford to leave crops out for another year in a row. It just can't happen."

Right now, she remains optimistic about the 2020 harvest.

"It's an exciting, but stressful time of year. It's awesome just to see what you've worked for the entire growing season."


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