Alberta farmers look for boost from online grocery pilot program

With restaurants and farmer’s markets in flux due to the COVID-19 pandemic, two organizations have partnered together to help solve the distribution problem faced by small Alberta farmers.

New specialty meat and pantry boxes sourced from Alberta Open Farm Days farmers

Becky Doherty, owner and operator of Stonepost Farms, with her husband John Doherty and children Keegan and Cadence. (Kristin Rae Photography)

With restaurants and farmer's markets in flux due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alberta farmers have had to get creative in order to distribute food to consumers. 

A new partnership between Open Farm Days and Edmonton-based online grocer Organic Box is helping farmers not only solve their distribution problem but also attract new customers. 

The Open Farm Days box is a pilot program launched on Friday to offer specialty grocery boxes sourced from small Alberta farmers. On the Organic Box website, customers can choose from three new boxes: a meat box from northern Alberta ranches, a meat box from southern Alberta and a pantry box stocked with local confections. 

All the contents come from farmers who often participate in Alberta Open Farm Days, a two-day province-wide event to showcase local agricultural production.

Alex Raymond, marketing coordinator for The Organic Box, said given the company's distribution network — roughly 500 farms — it was a perfect partnership to add Open Farm Day's list of producers. 

"We are able to use our distribution network to support and continue to support smaller, local farms and make sure that they can get out to their current customers as well as get new customers," he said.

Nicola Doherty, marketing coordinator for Open Farm Days, confirmed the boxes were created to help small Alberta farmers sell their products.

"We asked our farmers, 'how can we help? What's your struggle here?' And the distribution was a struggle for them and also being able to find new customers because of the pandemic, it was a little bit more difficult," Doherty said. 

Doherty said many farmers had started to consider different distribution methods, from launching their own website to opening their own delivery service.

Stonepost Farms has started offering pick up and delivery from their small farm near Wildwood, Alta. Owner and operator Becky Doherty — no relation to Nicola Doherty — said it's kept them busy through March and April. 

But she is worried about the upcoming summer season.

"That's when we have the bulk of our stuff ready to sell, like we would have more beef, pork and chicken," she said.

"Right now we are counting on the farmer's market still being approved… so if they fall through then that will change the outlook for it. We are going to have to start looking at pushing online models and doing more pick up locations."

She added that The Organic Box partnership brings some hope and additional exposure to the farm. 

"It's helping expand our customer base and so we reach more people by having our products incorporated in that box, as well as we are able to sell stuff," Becky said. 

"So I think it will definitely have a  positive benefit for us."

Because it is a pilot project, the specialty boxes will only be available on The Organic Box website until April 29. The Organic Box will start delivery on Apr. 28 and send the last shipment on May 1. 

"If this goes well, (The Organic Box) have invited us to do again," Doherty said, adding that they would be interested in doing specialty boxes that include vegetables and unique items like black garlic. 


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