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Small Farmers’ Big Customers Were Restaurants. Now What?

Planting goes on, with hopes new markets can be found and grown.

Quinn MacDonald 9 Apr 2020Hakai Magazine

Quinn MacDonald is the former editor of Concrete Garden, a magazine about sustainable urban agriculture. She lives, works and plays with gratitude on the territory of the Lək̓ʷəŋin̓əŋ-speaking peoples, the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations. She tweets here.

As more restaurants have highlighted locally-grown food on their menus, small-scale farmers have made supplying these restaurants a key part of their business plans. Now that COVID-19 public health orders have closed most restaurants, these farmers — and their food — have been left in the lurch.

For Chris Hildreth of Topsoil, a modular urban farm at Victoria’s Dockside Green, situated close to the shoreline near the city’s Inner Harbour, that means a sudden loss of 20 restaurant contracts, or about 70 per cent of his usual business. He’s not alone. An April 2 report by FarmFolk CityFolk, a non-profit that supports sustainable food systems in British Columbia, reported 47 per cent of surveyed farmers experiencing immediate losses and 73 per cent fearing losses later this year.

Hildreth says that while it’s hard to lose these contracts, he feels worse for the restaurants and other businesses that have had to shut down completely. “It’s obviously a big hit. But it’s a big hit for everyone,” he says.

Despite the uncertainty and lower long-term demand, he just completed a nearly normal spring planting of greens. “We have a product that people want and people need, and that’s never going to go away,” says Hildreth. They just need new strategies. “It’s nice to see the support of the entire farming community come together and go: how are we going to do this now?”

The 75 per cent federal wage subsidy will help him hold onto one employee, but he no longer has enough hours for four seasonal hires. Although Hildreth placed his orders for plant starts in early December, he now plans to grow some crops from seed rather than seedlings in order to stagger production.

Some farmers are responding by increasing their Community Supported Agriculture boxes, but that model won’t work for Hildreth’s setup. He plans to expand Topsoil’s onsite market — a large outdoor space that’s perfect for physical distancing. He also wants to invite other farmers to sell their produce at his location, which helps them out and adds variety to his offerings, and he has contacted a local greenhouse about ordering veggies such as cucumbers, summer squash and peppers to sell later in the season.

TopsoilVictoria.jpg
Topsoil’s urban farm, near Victoria’s Inner Harbour, used a modular, mobile setup to farm on unused urban spaces. Photo via Topsoil.

With restaurants closed and many shoppers rushing to stock up at large grocery chains that source from places like California, local food organizers worry this doubling-down could undermine years of work building up smaller producers and vendors further destabilizing long-term regional food security. Additionally, high-value restaurant contracts often subsidize other services urban farmers provide for their communities, like easy-access plant sales and public education through workshops and school programs. These farmers play a key role in connecting city dwellers to where their food comes from while scraping by on long workdays and extremely thin margins.

“We’ve always known the food system has some flaws,” says Aaren Topley of the Public Health Association of BC. “Now that COVID-19 is happening, those flaws that we’ve seen are becoming more and more pronounced.”

Topley has been a community food organizer in Victoria for years. The events of the last few weeks have meant checking in with small-scale urban farming operations like Topsoil and Mason Street Farm, located northeast of the downtown core, to see what they need. He’s encouraging farmers nervous about losing restaurant contracts to go ahead with their spring planting and wait for the community to come through. He says food non-profits everywhere should be checking in with their farmers.

In Victoria, members of the Good Food Network, a group of local food leaders, are accelerating plans to add a distribution hub to the Viewfield Road food rescue centre for farmers affected by COVID-19. Farther up Vancouver Island, Cowichan’s online farmers’ market, the Cow-Op, provides weekly pickup in downtown Duncan and Victoria. It saw a five-fold increase in business in late March. They’ve added a home delivery option and are currently hiring more employees and adding new suppliers.

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The Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild started as a way to get more Vancouver Island food into West Coast restaurants and expanded to include a weekly ordering program for local residents. With shuttered restaurants, the non-profit is now responding to an explosion in individual orders.

They’ve added a $30/week healthy value food box to support both their farmers who’ve already planted for TUCG’s restaurant orders and customers financially impacted by COVID-19. TUCG’s Bobby Lax says they’re keeping up their supply of dry goods and essential foods. “We don’t have a lot of extra stuff; I’d rather people focus on the good stuff right now.”

He’s also communicating with farmers who still have time to adjust. For example, switching niche chef-favoured items like Japanese hakurei turnips, “which are delicious but under-loved by the average individual,” to more lettuce, “because people always like a good salad.”

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If COVID-19 kills the market for what he’s grown, says Topsoil’s Chris Hildreth, 'we’ll give it away. People are really going to be struggling, and we want to be able to help them.’ Photo: Shutterstock.

Before closing up, the chef at Wolf in the Fog turned stranded food inventory into large batches of simple items like soup, hummus and fresh pasta for purchase through TUCG’s new community grocer option. It will also provide sales for otherwise-closed businesses such as Chocolate Tofino and Summit Bread Co.

While governments claim supply chains for fresh and processed foods are stable, Lax says these links will inevitably be disrupted as growers and shippers adjust to the new reality and workers get sick. Pictures of empty shelves and picked-over produce bins show these ebbs and flows are not just inevitable but already happening. Lax claims this could create opportunities for farmers through online ordering and expanded CSA box programs. But he acknowledges this is easier said than done, especially when farmers are in the middle of planting season. “Right now, they’re just trying to get the fields ready.”

Some food banks are struggling to source supplies just as their service is needed the most, since large grocery chains that normally offload their excess food are running out and community donations are discouraged due to safety precautions. Topley would like to see food banks source directly from small farmers. For example, the Shelbourne Community Kitchen, which distributes food in Saanich, has already contacted Hildreth to buy Topsoil’s greens.

A food system that hypes local greens in restaurants masks how hard it is for farmers at the best of times. Lax says that even with restaurants’ recent enthusiasm for local produce, farming is barely sustainable for most small growers. He worries about losing farmers and their knowledge during this crisis. “We were at a juncture before this. We just fell into a crater.”

Hildreth thinks his business can keep its head above water, but he worries about community members who have been hit harder. “The worst-case scenario is we grow some food, and if shit really hits the fan, we’ll give it away,” he says. “People are really going to be struggling, and we want to be able to help them.”

According to Topley, the COVID-19 crisis is a chance to ask bigger questions, like why food is connected to the marketplace at all. “If food is a human right, then one of the things we’d want is for farmers to have basic income, so their livelihood is not dependent on their ability to sell food. Instead, their livelihood is just guaranteed. And all of the food that they grow is meant to be eaten by the people and grown for the people.”

A different structure might recognize smaller-scale and urban farmers for all the services they provide the community, like preserving land, increasing biodiversity and providing public education. The rapid pivot by local organizations could help some small farmers survive now and shows that a more resilient system is possible.  [Tyee]

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