Homegrown support keeping some P.E.I. food producers busy

Some P.E.I. food businesses are seeing an increase in demand as Islanders are looking for local options during the pandemic.

'Right after the pandemic started we were just run off our feet'

The owners and staff at Crystal Green Farms in Bedeque, P.E.I., prepare vegetables and meat for individual orders. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Some food businesses on P.E.I. are seeing a growth in demand during the pandemic, as Islanders shop local to eat fresh and find new outdoor spaces to explore.

Wednesday was packing day at Crystal Green Farms in Bedeque, P.E.I., with work being done to bag vegetables for individual orders.

When the pandemic brought widespread public health measures — including stay at home recommendations and travel bans — owners Brian and Kathy MacKay worried about their organic farm business.

But they have seen demand go up in recent months, turning 2020 into the busiest year for the 12-year-old operation.

Kathy MacKay from Crystal Green Farms says they have seen more people looking for local foods since the pandemic began. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"I think people were really interested in buying local and knowing where their food came from," Kathy said, adding some people also may not have wanted to go to grocery stores.

MacKay said customers were reaching out to find out if the farm's vegetable and meat boxes were still available to order during the pandemic.

Other farmers have been chatting with MacKay and she said they are seeing similar results.

She says they were thankful that they were able to keep going with the business.

Crystal Green Farms grows organic vegetables as well as hay and grains. (Laura Meader/CBC)

'More time to think'

Staff at Riverview Country Market in Charlottetown said they are having to stock the shelves more often because of increased demand.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, people had a lot more time to think about the meals they were going to prepare and where they were going to get the food," said manager Tyler Crane.

Riverview Country Market started an online ordering system during the pandemic. (Laura Meader/CBC)

He said there was an influx of people asking for local vegetables and fruits.

"I think it's just because people had more time to be more conscious of where they were making their purchases and how it was going to affect small businesses like this one," Crane said.

The summer months usually bring tourists, something mostly missing this year. Crane said locals made up for much of that lost business.

The market added an online ordering system to help people shop from home.

'We did more business with the online store in March than we normally would had the store just been open to the public,' says Tyler Crane, manager at Riverview Country Market in Charlottetown. (Laura Meader/CBC)

"Right after the pandemic started we were just run off our feet and could barely keep up with the orders that were coming in," Crane said.

"So we really had to modify how we did things and we had a lot more staff involved than we normally would on a day-to-day basis and it was wonderful."

'Quite surprising'

'This season was amazing really, that would be the word for it,' says Mark Ashley, owner of Wintermoor Orchard in York, P.E.I. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Wintermoor Orchard in York, P.E.I., has shut down for the year but owner Mark Ashley said the fall was 50 per cent busier than other years. 

People often like stopping by to pick their own local apples, Ashley said, but many visitors this year were also searching for a safe outdoor activity with lots of physical distancing.

"This season was amazing really, that would be the word for it," Ashley said.

"A lot of people want to go out, they want to detox — get rid of some of the anxiety and they showed up in droves. It was quite surprising."

Wintermoor Orchard saw full parking lots on some of the busier weekends as more Islanders made an event of going apple picking this year. (Laura Meader/CBC)

Candace Nicholson and her boyfriend took her two-year-old daughter to pick apples.

"We always try to buy as much local as possible," Nicholson said. "I work for a local business so I understand the importance of people shopping local and buying local."

A previously announced Food Island Gift card program is also tapping into Islander's desire to support local. 

"It's been going very well. To date, Islanders have really supported the initiative. The first 5,000 cards sold in four-and-a-half days," said Kent Thompson, director of finance and food tourism with Food Island Partnership, which oversees the gift card program.

Kent Thompson with Food Island Partnership says the gift cards have been extremely popular. (Laura Meader/CBC)

In the beginning, the idea was to offer the cards for a month but after the initial success of the program, the decision was made to continue the offer for two years.

Thompson expects sales to be at the $1 million mark soon.

Canada's Food Island gift cards work at 120 merchants on the Island. (Laura Meader/CBC)

He said more people are thinking about where their food comes from at this time.

"They're also hearing about how the restaurants are having a hard time and some businesses are having a hard time and they see those people as their neighbours and their friends," Thompson said.

"They want to go out and help support them so they're looking for local."

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Laura Meader


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