New Brunswick

Demand for local food up but accessing customers during outbreak a challenge for producers

Local food producers say customers want to buy from them but finding a way to safely sell goods is proving difficult during COVID-19 shutdowns.

Kent Coates: 'I'm pretty lucky that I sell an essential item and hopefully people will be able to access it'

Kent Coates has seen an increased demand from his customers since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, but with farmers markets closed he and other producers are trying to find ways of getting their goods to consumers. (Submitted/Really Local Harvest)

Local food producers say customers want to buy from them but finding a way to safely access customers is proving difficult during COVID-19 shutdowns.

Even before the province declared a state of emergency Thursday, many businesses, including most farmers markets, closed their doors to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Kent Coates, an organic farmer and owner of Nature's Route Farm in Point de Bute, normally sells his vegetables directly to his customers on Fridays at the Dieppe market and again on Saturdays in Dieppe and at markets in Moncton and Sackville.

By last weekend, only the Sackville location was open, but business was still brisk.

"Our potato sales last week were probably up 200 percent from…the week before," said Coates.

People were stocking up on food in the face of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and Coates wants to be able to supply what they need.

Julian Howatt weighs romaine lettuce he grows hydroponically at his Moncton indoor farm, Local by Atta. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

"I'm pretty lucky that I sell an essential item and hopefully people will be able to access it." 

Virtual market

In Moncton, Julian Howatt is tending to a variety of leafy greens at Local By Atta, a vertical hydroponic farm. He and his brother lost out on about a third of their weekly business when the Dieppe and Moncton markets closed last weekend. The business also took a hit when orders from restaurants dried up, but he said fortunately, he supplies grocery stores that have seen an increase in sales. 

"We've also had a bit more interest in our weekly basket program, so that's working well," he said.

"We haven't quite offset the drop in demand elsewhere but we're working toward that."

Howatt, Coates and some other local producers had planned to hold a pop-up market at a parking lot in Dieppe, but cancelled it when the state of emergency was declared.

'Farmers are very resilient'

According to Maxime Gauvin, executive director of Really Local Harvest, "farmers are very resilient," and won't let the emergency measures act slow them down.

Maxime Gauvin, executive director of Really Local Harvest, said New Brunswick doesn't produce enough food to feed itself. He said, "I think some people will have been a little bit woken up by this situation and some habits will have changed." (Tori Weldon/CBC)

His group runs the Dieppe Farmers Market, which can see anywhere from 5000 to 7000 people through it's doors in a single day. 

To help offset the huge loss in sales the market closure is costing producers, Gauvin's group is running a virtual market on Friday. 

Customers must go to the group's website, place an order then pay for it. On Friday afternoon, outside the Dieppe market, customers pull up and open their trunk without getting out of the car. Employees and vendors place the orders in the trunk.

The transaction is done without any interaction.

Gauvin said about 30 orders were placed in the first 20 minutes of the order form being posted online.

Dependent on other regions for our food

Gauvin said some people may see farmers markets as social gatherings, but behind the coffee and conversation that normally goes on, important transactions are taking place. It's money spent that feeds the local economy, but also helps build a system that could make the province more food secure.

"We are very dependent on other regions for our food sources," said Gauvin.

Kent Coates will be participating in the virtual market and hopes these difficult times can help highlight the importance of the province being more self-sufficient. 

"It doesn't take very much of a sequence of events to really change our whole outlook and this is one that I see."

"We really would benefit from having more local production," said Coates. 

He said he started farming 15 years ago because of a belief that the region should be more food secure. 

"Those passions that I had 15 years ago are still valid, the world is both a big and a small place all at the same time."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tori Weldon

Reporter

Tori Weldon is a reporter based in Moncton. She's been working for the CBC since 2008.

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