Local farmers reflect on a growing season like no other

2020 brought challenges; but it also brought a surge in demand for local food

The 2020 fall harvest has come and gone, marking the end of a growing season like no other for local farmers and agriculturalists. Facing an early-summer drought and a pandemic, Peterborough growers have had to make adjustments on the fly and rethink how to go about their business. But the season hasn’t gone as badly as one might expect.

So — how was the season for local farmers? 

“Better than ever!” says Trevor Riel from Riel Acres Farm. “When COVID happened, we started a CSA and sold more than doing two farmers’ markets and restaurants combined.” (CSA stands for “community-supported agriculture” — a business model where customers pre-pay for a farm’s harvest, and then pick it up or have it delivered throughout the season.)

While farmers’ markets were permitted to stay open this spring, Riel decided not to participate due to the pandemic. Instead, he built a shop at the end of his laneway and he soon experienced a surge of traffic at the farm. “A lot of people didn’t want to go to a crowded grocery store or wait in line for half an hour,” says Riel. “Everything I grew, I sold.”

Riel wasn’t alone.

“If you’re a farm that sells direct to consumers, then there’s been a huge increase in demand and a huge increase in sales this year,” says Pat Learmonth, the director of Farms at Work, a non-profit that advocates for and supports local farmers. 

“It’s food,” says Anthony Lennan of the The Food Shop, “and when bad things happen, people buy food.” 

Trevor Riel, of Riel Acres Farms, decided not to participate in the Peterborough Regional Farmers’ Market this spring. Instead, he sold produce out of a stall built at the end of the farm’s laneway. (Photos via Riel Acres Farm’s Facebook)

Paul Longhurst operates 14th Line Farm in Selwyn, along with his partner, Ashley Nayler, his sister Michelle Longhurst and co-farmer Morgan Cleopatra. Together, they specialize in organic pasture-raised pigs and seasonal vegetables. He calls increased demand “the one bright spot in this otherwise garbage fire of a year for the local agriculture sector.”

“People quickly started thinking about how the pandemic is going to impact the local economy,” Longhurst says. “People made conscious decisions to give the money directly to the people instead of just going for the chains, or the big box stores.”

Ashley Nayler and Paul Longhurst of 14th Line Farm. (Photo courtesy of Paul Longhurst.)

With the 2020 season almost over, Longhurst is now turning to next year: “The question that we could talk about a year from now is whether this trend to purchase more local food continues.”

While there was a surge in demand for local food in 2020, that isn’t to say the season was easy. In the spring, it wasn’t clear that things would turn out well for local farmers. As Learmonth points out, COVID-19 and the related lockdown measures hit Canada during a crucial few weeks for agriculturalists. There was “a lot of uncertainty” in March and April, she says. People “had to make pretty serious decisions about what they were going to plant.” Learmonth says it’s likely that some farmers suffered because they decided to be careful and scale back in the spring, before it became clear that it would be possible to sell produce and that there would be such a demand for it. 

Local meat farmers also faced challenges, Learmonth says, because while there was increased demand for their product, the local abattoirs didn’t have the capacity to process meat fast enough to accommodate that demand.

The pandemic also negatively impacted other aspects of farming life. Travel and quarantine restrictions impacted the journey of migrant workers coming to Canada, for example.

“My guys were supposed to be in the field by April 28th, and they were not able to get onto the field until June 6th,” says Jessica Foote of Lunar Rhythm Gardens. “I had to scrounge to get full staffing in the spring.…Thankfully, I got a lot of great Canadians who stepped up and were hired part time and we got by.”

For Erin Bodashefsky, of Foragers Farms, the weather posed another challenge. “The season this year was hard, mostly because there was a very long drought,” she says. “Normally, droughts happen in the summer. That is to be expected, but it started in the spring and carried on throughout the summer.”

Without access to a nearby water source, Foragers Farms lost about 30 percent of their crops because of the drought, according to the farm’s Facebook page. After crowdfunding for a “Water Fund” this summer, they’re now drilling a well.

As the owner of Summer Roads Flower Company in Selwyn, Beatrice Chan faced a different challenge at the beginning of the year. Chan says she wasn’t initially permitted at the farmers’ market because she wasn’t an essential food service. So, like Riel, she built a farm stand on her property, and she says that was successful.

“Even with a shorter season because of the weather, sales were up because my community has been awesome in supporting me and my business. Also I think people are starting to know I exist,” she says. This was only Chan’s second summer in operation. With a degree in ecological restoration, she started her company last year after restoring a piece of land on her parents’ property and noticing flowers starting to grow there.

Beatrice Chan, owner of Summer Roads Flower Company. (Photo: Courtesy of Beatrice Chan)

Chan credits online marketing and social media with getting the word out about her business, and Learmonth agrees that’s been especially important this year. And it’s one of the ways Farms at Work has helped to support local farmers through the pandemic.

“Ever since COVID started we’ve been unbelievably busy because we just turned to marketing for the farms. In March we finished the localfoodptbo.ca website, and there’s all kinds of social media connected to that,” Learmonth says. Her team is made up of volunteers who post on platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, promoting local farms and their products. “We’re sharing posts from farms and restaurants and from stores about local food and how to find local food on a daily basis.”  

In September, Farms at Work launched another website to help connect consumers to local farmers, peterboroughfarmfresh.ca.

It’s been a busy season for Learmonth and local farmers. But thinking long term, Learmonth believes the pandemic will ultimately have a positive impact on local food. “I think that there’s going to be a much wider appreciation of the importance of having control over your food supply,” she says. We all need food, and “so we better be making sure as a country, and as a province, and as a community, that we are confident that we can meet that need.”

Zara Syed is a freelance writer in Peterborough. She is the former editor of Arthur Newspaper and a former Peter Gzowski Intern at CBC Radio.


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