Pandemic-inspired demand for local food down a bit, but still strong, farmers say

·4 min read
Farmers say the pandemic-inspired boom in local support has waned, but interest remains strong and many have a better appreciation of buying local. Workers are pictured preparing a greenhouse at Ferme Alva Farm. (Facebook - image credit)
Farmers say the pandemic-inspired boom in local support has waned, but interest remains strong and many have a better appreciation of buying local. Workers are pictured preparing a greenhouse at Ferme Alva Farm. (Facebook - image credit)

Farmers say a boom in buying local in New Brunswick sparked by the pandemic has waned, but support remains strong for meats and vegetables produced in the province.

The outset of the COVID-19 pandemic last March saw a run on some food products leading to shortages, along with challenges around transporting food caused by travel restrictions.

As a result, some local farmers say they saw a boom in business, as panicked shoppers started turning to them for their meats and vegetables.

A year later, while demand by New Brunswickers for local food has remained strong, it has dropped from the spike initially witnessed, said Fran Day, owner of Codiac Organics, an urban farm in Moncton.

Fran Day, owner of Codiac Organics in Moncton, said the initial spike in demand among New Brunswickers following the pandemic has dropped by between 30 and 40 per cent.
Fran Day, owner of Codiac Organics in Moncton, said the initial spike in demand among New Brunswickers following the pandemic has dropped by between 30 and 40 per cent.(Submitted by Fran Day)

"Initially at the beginning of the pandemic, for sure, we noticed [an increase in demand] for quite a few weeks or months.

"But as I was saying, once the people started to feel a bit more comfortable with the restrictions, then we did notice somewhat of a decline. I'm going to say 30 or 40 per cent."

Less demand noticed with looser restrictions

Day said her farm operates on about five acres of land, growing fruits and vegetables, and keeping chickens to sell eggs.

She said the spike in demand was most noticeable in spring 2020, but decreased when zones started moving to the less restrictive orange and yellow phases.

"So people were more comfortable in wanting to go back to grocery stores, and so we noticed a dip in sales... and that's been sort of a constant."

Shelley Dixon owns and operates a beef cattle farm in Point de Bute — just east of Sackville — with her husband, Roy Dixon.

Shelley Dixon, co-owner of a beef farm in Point de Bute, said demand has dropped from the spike seen at initial outset of the pandemic, but remains about double what it was before the pandemic began.
Shelley Dixon, co-owner of a beef farm in Point de Bute, said demand has dropped from the spike seen at initial outset of the pandemic, but remains about double what it was before the pandemic began.(Tori Weldon/CBC)

At the immediate outset of the pandemic, she said business at the farm shot up by 300 per cent. A year later, that demand has dropped, but the farm is still about twice as busy as it was pre-pandemic.

"It was a very sharp increase in the very beginning because of so many reasons, you know, that ranged from people trying to shop local for one thing, but also people were trying to do their best to only go into stores when they absolutely had to," she said.

A shift in mindset

Although some of the hype around buying local has subsided, farmers think there has been a change in the way many New Brunswickers want to get their food.

"We'd still like to say we've retained a lot of those customers," said Dixon, referring to the new clients they gained since the pandemic.

"[The pandemic] sort of forced people into trying something that maybe they've been thinking about doing for some time."

Day said she thinks more people have developed an awareness around the issues of food security, and how vulnerable they could be if food imports into New Brunswick were disrupted.

"[Consumers] have a sense that if they don't support local farms then some of them may not offer their services anymore — [they will] just shut down entirely if there's no support out there."

Growing demand for 'community supported agriculture'

One of the ways New Brunswickers have shown a desire for more local produce is by turning in increasing numbers to farmers who do what is known as "community supported agriculture," said Eva Rehak, president of the National Farmers Union in New Brunswick and co-owner of Ferme Alva Farm, in Saint-Maurice, near Bouctouche.

Eva Rehak, president of the National Farmers Union in New Brunswick and co-owner of Ferme Alva Farm, said she's seen a dip in demand for local produce, but the support is still strong.
Eva Rehak, president of the National Farmers Union in New Brunswick and co-owner of Ferme Alva Farm, said she's seen a dip in demand for local produce, but the support is still strong.(Submitted by Eva Rehak)

The business model involves selling subscriptions for vegetable boxes that clients pay for at the beginning of the year. Then from late spring until the fall they receive a weekly parcel of vegetables grown on the farm, Day said.

Rehak said she's been offering that service for the past 10 years and when the pandemic began, interest in it spiked way beyond the maximum 80 subscriptions she could provide in a season.

This year, there haven't been frantic calls from people hoping to secure local food, but she said the support is still strong.

"I think I think it sparked something in the sense... of like, 'Well, what if we really lock down and how much food do we have in the grocery stores?'" she said.

"And so I think that affected people in starting to think, 'Let's support the locals'."