Community supported agriculture got a boost from the pandemic, but will the surge last?

Sascha Ohme Sascha Ohme holds a freshly harvested white radish inside of a greenhouse at Ohme Farms in Jordan Station on Jan. 19, 2021.

Niagara’s community supported agriculture (CSA) programs were bolstered by a  dramatic increase in consumers turning toward locally grown food during  the pandemic. 

The  convenience of grocery supermarkets fizzled under daunting line ups,  COVID-19 quizzes and occasionally empty shelves as  food supply chains  were shaken by the unpredictable nature of humans during a health  crisis. 

“We  made the decision to go all-in to the for-sure market of people wanting  to buy seedlings and vegetables from farms they know,” said Sascha Ohme  of Ohme Farms

Sascha and his wife, Agnes, run a weekly, first-come, first-serve CSA program from their farm in Jordan Station. 

The  pair had plans to phase out a long-running CSA program to focus on  supplying some of Canada’s best restaurants with herbs, garnishes and  vegetables. But last March, Sascha said, they “saw an automatic zero  income stream” as restaurant business vanished. 

The  CSA was spared, and demand for Ohme’s organically grown produce rose  “many times” over volume seen in 2019. Demand for garlic was “through  the roof” along with a desire for colour, Sascha said.

The experience and support over the past year has reminded the pair of what’s important. 

“If you have people that appreciate your product, it keeps you going,” he said. 

The Ohmes have decided to keep their CSA running through 2021 and are still  churning out greens and veggies through the wintertime for their boxes.

In times of uncertainty, people begin to take stock of what’s around them, says Dave Perrotta of Old Country Acres Niagara in Welland. 

On nearly 13 acres of land, Perrotta grows everything from asparagus to zucchini with his wife, Devon, and two young children. 

He said the family-run operation “took on a much larger workload” during  the 2020 season, enough to cause a re-evaluation of how things would be  done for the upcoming season. 

Despite anticipating demand for their CSA program to be similar to last year, he decided to cap subscriptions for 2021 to between half and three-quarters of last year’s volume. 

Though Perrotta said he loves providing organically grown food to the  community, with the extra workload comes more time planting, picking,  packing and delivering — all without an increase in price. 

“I want this to be something that adds to my life,” he said. “It’s sort of a labour of love.” 

The  challenge  comes in striking a balance between time spent baking under  the sun, running deliveries and what people are used to paying for  veggies at a supermarket.

Renee Delaney of Small Scale Farms is spending most of her time with e-commerce, preparing for an anticipated increase in her CSA program for the coming season. 

Delaney said the pandemic demand was “almost too much.” 

She’s now adding new vendors weekly to her “food hub”  program. 

small scale farms
On Jan. 15, 2021, Volunteers Annee Simnovel (back) and Sonia Carver (front), load produce into a crate for Small Scale Farms’ community supported agriculture program run out of Thorold, Ontario.

Based out of Thorold, upwards of 100 orders per day of fresh produce are prepared by about 30 volunteers, then distributed throughout Niagara.

Her model involves sourcing products from multiple small-scale farmers and  moving people away from grocery store chains and closer to their local  economy by providing local distribution.

“The  people are looking for the farmers, and the farmers are looking for the  people,” she said, lamenting how few local farms are left. 

Delaney  wonders if all the increased interest in community supported  agriculture is just a blip from a desire to replace the convenience once  found at supermarkets.

“All  of a sudden (people) wanted to show their support and then it kinda  dies off,” she said of when COVID-19 restrictions eased this past  summer. 

With  Niagara in the midst of another shutdown, the question on her mind is  if the renewed interest in CSAs will quell when things return to normal.

If Delaney had it her way, CSAs wouldn’t just be a stopgap — they’d replace supermarkets entirely. 

But changing minds takes time, she says: “Just keep planting seeds.”