From the farmgate to the screen, Niagara farmers building online presence throughout pandemic

·3 min read

From small local farms to major flower distributors, Niagara’s farm gates are going digital during the pandemic.

With the help of up to $5,000 in funding from the provincial-federal Agri-Food Open for E-Business initiative, the pricey burden of tapping into the online marketplace has been made a little lighter for area farmers forced online to sustain business during COVID-19 restrictions.

At the beginning of the pandemic, DeVries Fruit Farm in Fenwick started retailing online. The business fronted the cost of plugging in, said Dan DeVries, calling it a “complete business shift.”

“We changed our whole point-of-sale system; we spent close to $20,000,” he said.

The farm was receiving anywhere from 80 to 100 orders per day at their peak.

“We were just running off our feet, one day to the next it was crazy,” he recently said from a 2,000-square-foot retail space; expanded from 700-square-foot this past spring to make room for safer in-person shopping.

While online ordering has since tapered off, the trend isn’t going away, with DeVries still receiving between 10 and 15 online orders per day.

Colonial Florists, a St. Catharines-based supplier of flowers to major chains like Costco, Longos, and Home Depot, were forced to head online after the chains slashed orders or opted not to open gardening centres at all back in March and April.

Ron van der Zalm, one of Colonial’s four owners, said there were sleepless nights, sick with worry, as they tried to figure out what to do with 14 acres of flowers ready to wilt into a substantial loss.

“We’re thinking: do we open up our own little shops throughout Niagara wherever we can, on street corners and parking lots to move our product?” van der Zalm said.

In the end, Colonial went online with curbside pickup available at their greenhouse location. With other growers in mind, van der Zalm said they told other garden centres of their plan to move online ahead of the move and maintained prices high enough to keep from undercutting.

“We spent the money, we basically took our catalogue that we would give to our wholesalers and put it online, open to the public to purchase from us directly,” he said. “A lot of people just bought to help support us, which was really, really nice to see.”

By mid-May sales had built back up with their larger clients to the point where they couldn’t keep up with retail any longer.

At a small family farm in St. Ann’s, Alison and Larry Moore are raising their children and grass-fed cattle at Rosedene Acres while working separate, off-farm jobs.

The Moores recently received word that they were approved for the full $5,000 after having applied back in April.

The cash will allow them to revamp their 15-year-old website, which by modern standards is stuck in the past. Without the funding, Alison said they wouldn’t be able to afford an upgrade.

They’re now shopping around with website designers and hope to have a refreshed online presence launched by the end of January that will allow for online ordering.

During the pandemic, inquiries about the Moores’ beef product have increased and as a result, Alison is spending more time behind the screen and hopes the website upgrade will streamline the inquiry and order process for her too.

In total, 46 Niagara businesses, made up of wineries, breweries, farms, greenhouses, and food businesses, are approved to receive funding through the initiative with amounts ranging between $870 and $5,000.

Jordan Snobelen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Niagara this Week