December 10, 2023

Food City

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Forest City Food: To market, to market

How the pandemic inspired Forest City farmers’ markets to do business differently

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Two years ago, John Young agreed to keep an eye on his stepdaughter’s Friday outdoor seasonal farmers’ market at Masonville Mall. He assumed it would mean little more than lending a hand to deal with tables at the beginning and end of market day. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Young realized he’d have to attend the entire session to enforce COVID prevention protocols.

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“It was touch and go,” he says of the Masonville Farmers’ Market’s delayed opening in July 2020 (because of the provincial shutdown) and ensuing season. “You had a core 10 or 12 [vendors]” but of the market’s 18 vendors’ spots, “we were full only twice.”

Instead of abandoning the market, however, the retired concert promoter realized he enjoyed the involvement, so he bought the business. Moreover, the pandemic experience taught him the importance of maintaining a full-time presence as its manager. “From the vendors’ standpoint they really like it that one person is there all the time and doing promotions,” he explains. He also renegotiated its location to a larger and quieter spot in the shopping centre’s parking lot.

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Young is among several farmers’ markets operators and participants who have used their experiences in the pandemic to reimagine how they do business. Some, says Ann Slater, the western Ontario director for Farmers’ Markets Ontario, obtained government funding to introduce web-based markets and curb-side pickup, such as markets in Grand Bend and Bayfield, services that have continued as restrictions ease. Others, like the Saturday market to which Slater belongs in St. Marys, have fostered new support and interest by continuing as-is (with pandemic safety protocols) and weathering the hardships.

Location was one of the biggest changes at the St. Marys Farmers’ Market, Slater says. The market lost its home in a municipally owned parking lot after the town closed the lot during a province-wide shutdown. Yet market vendors turned their temporary homelessness into an opportunity by forging a relationship with Delmar Foods, a local food processor, which led to a space in the processor’s parking lot for the remainder of the 2020 season. The next year, at the request of the municipality, the market relocated again, this time to the Milt Dunnell Field, a park next to the Thames River and close to downtown. “That has now become our permanent home,” she says.

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The pandemic also helped the market to connect with community groups, Slater says. “Some of the community groups have had a real challenge to do fundraising, and last year the market became a place they could set up fundraising tables,” she explains. Artisans also gravitated to the market after craft shows were postponed. That both groups reached out to their local farmers’ market to connect with the public exemplifies “to some extent, not just St. Marys, I think that in general there was some awareness of the role of markets and their importance to the community,” she says. Market vendors have continued their relationship with Delmar Foods as well, where they plan to hold a pop-up market at Easter, she adds.

In London at Covent Garden Market downtown, there were some setbacks over the course of the pandemic, such as having to cancel the indoor farmers’ market that precedes the warmer season outdoor farmers’ market. The outdoor market, however, continued to run on Saturdays, with precautions, and staff began to use social media extensively to promote vendors. That social media strategy will continue, says Sam Regier, the facility’s farmers’ market manager.

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The most significant changes, however, have come from the vendors themselves. Pre-pandemic, several vendors offered customers different ways to pay, “but I think [easing restrictions] have brought some out who used to do cash-only back in the day and have now invested in the tap machines and ways of doing e-transfer and just accepting other types of payment,” Regier says.

How vendors connect with customers is transforming too, she adds, pointing to the introduction in 2020 of a produce delivery boxes from Thames River Melons farm near Innerkip and a new online ordering system at Greystead Gardens Organic Farm in Denfield which has allowed its owners to accept pre-orders and offer home delivery. Both farm operations plan to continue with these innovations, Regier says.

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Slater says many farmers throughout the region, including herself (she sells organic fruits and vegetables), began to rely more heavily on digital presences to connect with customers through the pandemic. She now accepts preorders by email but notes that many other vendors set up websites to handle prepayments as well. (According to the provincial government’s 2021 local food report, 650 businesses across Ontario received more than $3.2 million from a provincial and federal agri-food e-business digitization initiative.)

At Masonville market, vendor numbers grew over the course of the pandemic. “I ended up with 20 the first month,” Young says of the 2021 season, noting his stepdaughter had assisted him with recruiting vendors. He anticipates even more this year; so does Regier at Covent Garden market. “We haven’t even really had to do these callouts to look for vendors” for the coming season, she says. “Every day we have emails from people who are just trying to get into market because they are small businesses so the pandemic has really affected them in the last couple of years.”

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Young says he also saw a “drastic increase” in visitor volume last year compared to the year before, which he attributes to people working from their homes during the pandemic and therefore more able to make a quick trip to the market.

With pandemic restrictions easing, both Young and Regier anticipate boosts in visitor numbers this year. Slater, the veteran farmers’ market vendor, however, eyes the coming season which kicks off in May cautiously. While the pandemic appears to be receding, smooth sailing ahead is no guarantee. “Who knows what it means with the increase in inflation and the price of food going up, how that’s going to play into markets in the coming year, I don’t know,” she says.

The pandemic has hit a lot of businesses hard, including those which provide on-farm experiences. Christy Hiemstra whose family owns Clovermead Adventure Farm and Honey Shop near Aylmer, says during the first year of the pandemic the provincial restrictions meant they had to cancel events such as their annual bee beard and pumpkin festivals, lay off staff, reduce costs, and obtain government support.

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Embracing new directions and keeping a close eye on costs helped them get back on track the next year, she says, describing a decision to promote the farm’s attractions to different communities via social media. The effort contributed to a boost in visitors, and they continue to plan the promotions this year. The family is also rethinking how they present their attractions to create opportunities for people to spend more time at the farm, she says.

“It’s almost like beginning the business again,” Hiemstra says, noting the experience has taught the family to go back to the basics, “even on the spending, why you do what you do, and from the customer’s view too.”

At Meghan and John Snyder’s pumpkin and Christmas tree farm in Oxford County, attractions are a key feature. Through daytime activities and a fear farm evening attraction in the fall season, Snyder’s Farm and Fear Farm regularly draws 60,000 visitors.

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So, when they had to cancel or restrict attendance at their events because of the pandemic, they knew they had to come up with another venture to help address the loss in income.

Meghan says they wanted something that would have an impact well after the pandemic lifted and settled on creating 24 campfire areas that people could rent for an evening, which they billed as VIP campfire areas.

Last fall, the new, socially distanced attraction was booked solid, she says. The project also gave them something to focus on and build towards at a point when the future seemed most bleak, she adds — and it allowed them to keep staff employed.

While Meghan is optimistic about the coming season, she stresses the importance of consumers making the decision to shop and travel locally. “While we’re all allowed to travel to other places, and I know we’re all excited … but honestly, local businesses have been through so much that they need support from all of us,” she says.


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