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.
Delaney said the pandemic demand was “almost too much.”
She’s now adding new vendors weekly to her “food hub” program.
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.”