The legacy of COVID-19 in the agri-food industry

The OFA provides farmers with resources and advice to help them pivot their operations and sell to local markets

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer
Better Farming

As part of the organization’s response to COVID-19, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture (OFA) staff published a resource to help farmers interested in selling directly to consumers.

As consumers adjust their food purchasing patterns during the pandemic, they may make lasting changes in how they access food and other farm products, like flowers.

“When the quarantine began, there was a lot of stress and uncertainty,” Danielle Collins told Better Farming. She’s the agriculture economic development policy analyst for the OFA. “As regular market channels – such as restaurants, farmers markets, garden centres and retail stores – closed, we recognized the need to support farmers who were trying to get their products out the door and access their consumers in new and innovative ways.”

OFA staff collected information on alternative markets for direct sales, as well as health and safety protocols to keep staff and customers safe.

Some producers have successfully “pivoted their businesses to a completely different audience,” Collins said. Some flower wholesalers, for example, adapted their businesses to sell directly to consumers.

“Food and agricultural products are unique in that they’re perishable,” she said. In contrast to other industries, farmers can’t hold onto stock. So, it’s helpful to know how to quickly adapt to sell to different markets.

woman wearing mask at farmers market
    BakiBG/E+ photo

Some of the advice published in the OFA’s resource, such as employer due diligence measures to ensure workers remain healthy and safe, focuses on protocols during the pandemic. However, many of the lessons, “in terms of how to market your operation and tell your story,” will be applicable long after the COVID-19 crisis, Collins said.

Incorporating direct sales during the pandemic has “definitely opened up an opportunity for some. The ability to quickly take advantage of (new opportunities) and alter your practices in order to access new markets (is key). People look for shorter supply chains to (decrease) the number of hands touching their food. (Consumers are) cooking more and they’re not buying takeout as much,” she explained.

Consumers also recognize the opportunity to connect with local farmers. “We expect to see consumers changing their behaviours (in the longer term) as well,” Collins added.

In a survey the OFA conducted in November 2019, 40 per cent of farmer respondents expressed interest in direct sales, she said.

So, producers wanted to learn more about this business opportunity even before the pandemic. Online tools make it easier than ever to connect with local consumers.

The governments of Ontario and Canada invested up to $2.5 million to help agri-food businesses establish or further develop online marketing tools, an April 24 release said. The funding is part of the Canadian Agricultural Partnership.

Many farmers are exploring direct marketing opportunities, so “it coincides well that the governments are providing funding and resources,” Collins said.

Ontario Farm Fresh Marketing Association and Farmers’ Market Ontario also provide farmers with guidance on direct-to-consumer sales during the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond. BF

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