A shift away from farmers' markets in favour of online stores by some NOTL farmers signals change in consumer behaviour during pandemic

·3 min read

Before the pandemic, farmers’ markets were a meeting place for locals to spend a weekend morning gingerly perusing offerings of locally produced wares, while striking up conversations with neighbouring farmers about the origins of their food.

But in a year marked by COVID-19 restrictions stifling the typical market-going bustle, some farmers are distancing themselves from the tradition of markets in favour of doing business online.

“That’s still the way we’re thinking,” said Juliet Orazietti, who raises livestock at Linc Farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake with her husband, Martin Weber.

Orazietti said direct-to-customer sales have increased by 40 per cent this year without farmers’ markets.

The markets are time consuming, unpredictable and can have high costs associated with table space, she said.

The orders they receive online are more consistent at a time when Orazietti is finding people don’t want to leave their homes. And deliveries are easily orchestrated on weekly delivery routes. Linc now conducts all of their business online.

Despite the change in mindset brought on by the pandemic, Orazietti emphasizes they couldn’t have gotten their start without the farmers markets and says the diminished communication between the public and famers due to pandemic restrictions is unfortunate.

For Orazietti, the face-to-face interaction is integral to the market experience.

“That felt like half of what I was doing at the market,” she said of the conversations with customers.

Linc Farm’s social media following has risen this year providing a different way to interact with customers over apps like Instagram.

While not fully abandoning famers’ markets, Porpiglia Farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake is gradually stepping away and focusing on online orders received through their Facebook page.

Angela Porpiglia said her 74 year-old father, Carmen Porpiglia, is “oldschool” and won’t willingly walk away from the St. Catharines farmers’ market where he grew up alongside his late father, Fortunto, who farmed here after immigrating from Italy.

Online demand for their produce and plants has doubled throughout the pandemic, Angela said, taking away available product for farmers’ markets.

Selling over 150 baskets of peaches on a market day, like they once did, is now unheard of.

“Farmers markets are on the sideline as far as sales, they’re not as good,” she said, adding that over the next few years, even they may completely get out of the market scene due to strong online sales.“

You have to adapt or you might as well give up,” she said, adding, that without demand, there's no reason to plant.

For all the talk of reaching consumers behind the screen, Sharon Brinsmead-Taylor, market coordinator for Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Market at the Village, said this year has been busier than ever.

“Unbelievable how busy we were this year,” she remarked.

And that’s without having an online component. Many of the farmers that attend the market, Brinsmead-Taylor said, don’t have email or internet. By the end of the season, the market ended off with 10 farmers, up from seven back in May.

“The amount of work that it takes on part of the farmer … I don’t think that the sales would be that much greater,” she said of the market’s decision not to provide online ordering.

Rose Bartel, of Bartel Farms in Niagara-on-the-Lake, has been attending the Market at the Village for upwards of 15 years.

“I would say we had the best year ever at the farmer’s market,” Bartel said.

If she had a choice though, she said, “I would gladly go back to the way it was before this past year.”

Jordan Snobelen, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Niagara this Week