Ottawa

Local farmers seeing boom in business as pandemic drives up demand

While the COVID-19 pandemic is stifling business across many sectors, local farmers say they're witnessing a boom as hungry families seek out fresh food without the potential risk of going to crowded grocery stores.

Families avoiding grocery stores, seeking out new sources of fresh food

Sarah Hunt of Corad Farms in Pakenham, Ont. (Hello Lovely, Ottawa for Carp Farmers' Market)

While the COVID-19 pandemic is stifling business across many sectors, local farmers say they're witnessing a boom as hungry families seek out fresh food without the potential risk of going to crowded grocery stores.

For some agribusinesses that's meant hiring new staff at a time when most employers are laying off workers. On family farms it's all-hands-on-deck time as they scramble to fill and deliver the multiplying online orders.

Here's a look at how some local food producers are meeting the challenge in the face of this sudden and unprecedented demand.

Corad Farms, Pakenham

"We've sold more beef since COVID-19 than we did since the beginning of the year," said Sarah Hunt of Corad Farms near Pakenham, Ont. "We have actually increased our business by probably one and a half times the normal. I think people are trying to avoid the grocery store."

The 400-hectare family farm would normally sell the bulk of its frozen beef products at market in nearby Carp or Arnprior, but since COVID-19, online sales have exploded.

Future farmer Wesley Hunt with some curious Limousin cattle at Corad Farms in Pakenham, Ont. (Sarah Hunt)

Hunt, 40, a mother of five, ages one to 17, has been offering free delivery across the region. "I'm all over the place," she said. "It's chaos at any given time."

Your Milkman Inc., Constance Bay

Daniel Léger is a fifth-generation milkman whose great-grandfather used to deliver bottles by horse and buggy.

Last year, Léger, 36, started thinking about expanding his commercial delivery business to capitalize on the quaint appeal of home-delivered milk.

Daniel Léger rushed to launch Your Milkman Inc. in response to the sudden demand for home delivery of dairy products. (Matt Caille)

COVID-19 hurried up his timeline. "I would say between 80 and 90 per cent of our commercial clients closed within a week of each other," Léger said. So he and his partner pivoted to home delivery, starting March 19. 

"It's exploded. We're everywhere from Arnprior to Orléans," Léger said.

He now delivers to 800 addresses, hitting between 50 and 120 each night. In addition to milk, Léger also delivers cream, yogurt, butter, cottage cheese, sour cream — "basically everything you find in the dairy refrigerated aisle."

Despite the quick uptake, the company is still building toward a critical mass of residential clients, Léger said. 

"We're not making anywhere near the profit that we were off of commercial [clients], so we're working twice as hard for less profit," he said. 

Ottawa Valley Meats, Ottawa

COVID-19 has been a game changer for Ottawa Valley Meats. "When it first hit, our online system just kind of blew up," said Glen Badour, 44, vice-president of sales and one of three co-owners.

The company sells free-range and organic beef, pork, chicken and lamb, all sourced and slaughtered locally, as well as seafood and some organic dairy. 

It's just gone completely nuts because no one wants to go to the stores. Or they go to the store and they can't find what they want. It's just incredible.- Glen Badour, Ottawa Valley Meats

The company took money it would have spent appearing at trade shows and barbecue festivals — all cancelled — and poured it into Facebook and online advertising.

"Then it just exploded. We're literally doing 100-plus orders a day," Badour said. Before COVID-19, the company would typically get fewer than 10 online orders a day.

"It's just gone completely nuts because no one wants to go to the stores. Or they go to the store and they can't find what they want. It's just incredible."

Ottawa Valley Meats has hired two new packers and another driver, and has bought in another refrigerated van to make deliveries. They're also buying more meat from farmers in Winchester, Embrun, Metcalfe and Carleton Place. 

Ottawa Valley Meats, which is supplied by local farmers, has hired three more staff to respond to burgeoning online demand. (Darius Campeau)

"We're probably gonna hire another packer this week, if it keeps going," Badour said.

Veggie Trail Farms, Bells Corners

The sudden boom in online sales has been a mixed blessing at Veggie Trail Farms, according to owner Tammy Bannon.

Tammy Bannon of Veggie Trail Farms in Bells Corners. (Steven Baker)

"I'm sort of stuck here at the house having to deal with the customers as they're picking things up, so I'm not as available for the physical work," said Bannon, 59.

"Usually I hire from Algonquin College's horticultural program … but because of COVID-19 and being isolated, I didn't want them in the house. I'm having to do a lot more work in the house and postponing things until people can work outdoors where it's a lot safer."

Despite the hardship, Bannon said she feels like she's filling an imortant role in a time of need.

"There is a need out there that needs to be filled. The community is looking for something. And I kind of feel that there's a responsibility to fill that need."

Castor River Farm, Metcalfe

George Wright feels that pressure to provide, too, but he's made some hard decisions in the face of increasing demand since COVID-19.

You want to be there for everybody, but I just can't. It's harsh, but if you're one of my customers, you appreciate it.- George Wright, Castor River Farm

His Castor River Farm website currently reads: "We are no longer accepting new customers either at our farm store or weekly deliveries. We are focusing solely on the customers who have supported us for 20 years in order to not run out of product for them. I know this is harsh, but that is the way it is."

Wright, 52, said people suddenly started turning up or calling in droves, looking to buy his rolled oats, flour and eggs.

"It actually started in February. When there were shortages in the grocery stores, people start to turn elsewhere. And when eggs are flying off the shelf, there's a lot more people wanted eggs."

George Wright of Castor River Farm in Metcalfe has had to say no to new clients so he can focus on his existing ones. (Mary Wright)

But it's just not possible to ramp up egg production, Wright said. "There's a provincial rule that we're only allowed 100 hens. We only have a certain number of eggs, and it's that simple. We just don't have enough to supply more people," he said. 

"You want to be there for everybody, but I just can't. It's harsh, but if you're one of my customers, you appreciate it."

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