'This is what we need to do': Small-scale farmers create new business models during pandemic

Small-scale farmers are finding new ways to get food from their farms to the forks of Manitobans during the COVID-19 pandemic — and consumers are buying in.

Manitoba food producers find demand for direct-to-customer products

Laura Tait, left, and Chad Wiens, right, from Heart Acres Farm are using part of their community supported agriculture program to help low-income and newcomer families. (Submitted by Laura Tait )

Small-scale farmers are finding new ways to get food from their farms to the forks of Manitobans during the COVID-19 pandemic — and consumers are buying in.

When Heart Acres Farm first heard about COVID-19, owners Laura Tait and Chad Wiens weren't sure whether farmers markets would remain open, so they decided to create a new business plan. 

While markets can still operate, the new plan has paid off anyway, with increased demand for Heart Acres' weekly vegetable box — 27 new customers signed up on the weekend.

"I think it's partially because of COVID and people not being sure what food security is going to look like," Tait said. 

While the weekly vegetable box program — also known as community supported agriculture or CSA box — isn't new for the farm, how they've structured it is.

The farm created a five-tiered payment option that provides higher income customers a chance to help pay for lower income customers.

The goal is to help newcomers, refugees and low-income Manitobans.

The farm was hoping to implement some version of this new tiered CSA model in the coming years, but they decided that in the face of a global pandemic, they needed to change the way they do business.

"This is what we need to do. We need to take care of one another and this is one way … we're going to do that," Tait said. 

Tait believes the business model is more sustainable for customers facing tough financial times and safer for those who are immunocompromised.

"Neighbourhood pickup options are really attractive, because grocery stores are horrible right now, especially if you have any [immune] issues at all," she said.

Heart Acres Farm received 27 new subscriptions for their weekly CSA box last week, a higher than normal number that co-owner Laura Tait believes is in part due to COVID-19. (Submitted by Laura Tait)

While farmers markets will operate this season, restaurants have been placed on hold for the time being, leaving a gap in the economy for many small-scale farmers.

Andreas Zinn, co-owner of Zinn Farms, relied heavily on local restaurants to purchase his pork and other meats. 

"Our whole production system on our farm is based for restaurant volume," Zinn said.

He's had to come up with a new way of doing business and is now offering delivery. 

His private online sales have increased, filling the financial void left by restaurants that can no longer seat diners. 

"We're going to be pretty close to — maybe even a little bit better than — what we were doing," he said. 

Andreas Zinn, centre, says his farm supplies restaurants, so when many closed due to COVID-19, he started a customer delivery program, which has been successful. (Submitted by Andreas Zinn)

Zinn is also selling online through the St. Norbert Farmers' Market.

Kristie Beynon, general manager of Direct Farm Manitoba, said more people are realizing that buying food directly from local farmers is a way to have a safe, healthy food supply chain.

"It's becoming very apparent in the present crisis that [a local food system] is needed," Beynon said. 

Direct Farm Manitoba members — there are 110 — have told her there has been an increase in CSA customers.

"The money that is spent on those things [local food] feeds the local economy, and it also helps to build a more food secure Manitoba," she said.

For Beynon, buying directly includes purchasing from markets like St. Norbert Farmers' Market, which has created a drive-thru pickup system and processed more than 200 orders over the weekend. 

Farmers markets will look a little different this season, Beynon said.

They will remain essential places to buy food, but customers will be encouraged to come, shop and move on in order to abide by provincial regulations, she said.

For farmers, the pandemic means adapting to an online world that provides direct services to customers. 

That has resulted in extra work but for some, that work has already started to pay off. 

"I'm hopeful and it's really great to see, like, a lot of eaters and growers coming together," Tait said.


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