Newly planted vegetables at Duck Creek Farm
AS THE GROWING SEASON RAMPS UP IN BC, it’s abundantly clear that this year will challenge farmers and food suppliers in a multitude of ways. The effects of COVID-19 will likely continue to ripple through our food systems for months, especially in urban areas where food supply chains tend to be longer and more complex. To get to our tables, many products go from farm to processing plant to large retailers; what happens when any one of those links is disadvantaged by the current pandemic?
In Canada, farmers currently have to make tough decisions because it is difficult or impossible for them to access the labour pool of temporary foreign workers that they rely on to cultivate and harvest many of their crops. Farther afield, some countries are considering limiting their exports of certain key crops. According to Bloomberg News (March 25 2020), Kazakhstan—an important global exporter of wheat—just banned exports of the product; in a similar vein, Vietnam has put a hold on new export contracts for rice. These are just two examples of the ways that COVID-19 is stressing the food system that we all depend upon.
I am an optimist at heart, and I have a lot of faith in the ability of our local and global community to adapt to the challenges that we will see this year. The Canadian federal and provincial governments have been acting quickly and decisively to ensure that all food supply related jobs are seen as essential services and supported as such. That said, it would be short sighted in the extreme if we didn’t consider the various ways that COVID-19 will continue to affect our food systems even once we have managed to “flatten the curve.”
I am a farmer and writer on Salt Spring Island; the responses that I’m seeing from small farmers on the island make me optimistic that with some careful planning and creative adaptations, small farmers will be able to fill some of the gaps in our local food supply.
Small farmers here face a different set of challenges than industrial growers. Many supply directly to restaurants, which is currently not an option. They also rely more heavily on sales outlets like farmers markets, which may be temporarily closed or have greatly reduced traffic. Here on Salt Spring, as in many other small BC towns, tourism is an important part of the economy and usually plays a significant role in keeping small farmers and artisans in business.
Farmers now have to find alternate sources of income to ensure the survival of their business. Many are starting a CSA program this year, or expanding existing ones: Community Supported Agriculture is a sales model in which people pay upfront for a weekly share of farm produce—the influx of money at the start of the growing season provides a guaranteed income for the farmer, and the customer benefits from a consistent supply of fresh local produce all season long. Duck Creek Farm on Salt Spring has expanded their CSA from 22 to 80 members, and may continue to accept new members if their crops do well. Down the road, the Hastings House Country Hotel farm—which usually provides organic vegetables for the hotel restaurant—is considering starting a CSA to share their produce with local consumers while the hotel is closed.
Online programs also offer a valuable sales outlet that many farmers (and consumers) are making use of for the first time. SPUD.ca, for example, is a BC and Alberta based business that curates local, organic food directly from producers; customers put in an online order and the food is delivered to their door. SPUD, like most other food delivery services, is currently experiencing an unprecedented amount of business.
On Vancouver Island, the Cowichan Online Farmers Market, which delivers produce to Duncan and Victoria, saw a dramatic increase in orders in late March—so much so that they are hiring employees and expanding their business model (The Tyee, April 9 2020).
On Salt Spring, the website Local Line is being used for the first time by a plethora of local farmers. The website is designed to help farmers market their produce directly to consumers: they input their available inventory, and customers can order online with an option for contactless pickup or delivery.
These are just a handful of examples of existing delivery programs that provide a direct connection between farmers and consumers. None are new, but all are experiencing a massive surge of popularity as their services help maintain the essential connection between people and food, in this case local food.
As well as working to increase access to local food right now, many farmers on Salt Spring are thinking about how to increase food security in the near future. Duck Creek Farm, for example, has plans to increase their fall and winter storage crops, such as beets and carrots. They are also making plans to save seeds this year for the first time, with the expectation that seeds will be either scarcer or more expensive next year.
Increased government funding is also helping support growers in their work. Salt Spring Island Community Services has secured enough funding for additional staff to expand their one-acre farm plot, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables for the local food bank. The food bank currently serves about 100 people a week, and the expectation is that that number will rise dramatically this year as people who are prevented from working due to COVID-19 struggle to make ends meet.
As of right now, we are all reacting as best we can to the COVID-19 crisis. The challenges are far from over, but we are already starting to see the potential seeds of lasting change as people from every industry, government department and the community put their heads together to respond and adapt. I’m optimistic that our collective response will be not only reactive, but also proactive. This is not the first time that the world has been rocked by a global crisis, and nor will it be the last. We have an opportunity to build lasting connections that can strengthen our communities against future challenges as well.
First and foremost on my mind is the ever-present and growing challenge of climate change. Much like the current pandemic, climate change transcends borders and has the potential to greatly impact our global food supply chains. The effects of climate change—which include increasingly severe droughts, increased risk of flooding, and more changeable weather patterns, to name just a few—already affect growers around the world and those effects are only going to increase. If we take one thing from this pandemic, let it be the remembrance that local food security is important for the long-term resilience of our communities as the effects of climate change threaten food supplies in years to come.
COVID-19 has sparked a growing support for farmers as we remember the importance of the service they provide: whatever is happening in the world, we all need to eat. Increased funding and more active consumer support for local growers are two trends that I see right now that make me optimistic for the future of food in Canada. Seeing farmers work hard to fill any gaps in our local food system, to save seeds for next year and to diversify their business models is also an inspiration. This pandemic is unquestionably disrupting many lives for the worse, but it also seems to be galvanizing actions that can benefit our communities in the long run if we continue to appreciate their value.
Hilary Thomson is a farmer and writer based on Salt Spring Island. When not digging in the dirt, she and her partner can be found traveling the Pacific Coast by sailboat. Her work can be found online at 48 North Magazine, Waterborne Magazine and Bootsnall Travel Website.