Niagara farmers building online presence throughout pandemic

online order An online order is seen on an iPad at DeVries Fruit Farm on Dec. 22, 2020. - Photo credit: Jordan Snobelen/Metroland

From small local farms to major flower distributors, Niagara’s farm gates are going digital during the pandemic.

With the help of up to $5,000 in funding from the provincial-federal  Agri-Food Open for E-Business initiative, the pricey burden of tapping into the online marketplace has been made a little lighter for area farmers forced online to sustain business during COVID-19 restrictions. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, DeVries Fruit Farm in Fenwick, in the Town of Pelham, started retailing online. The business fronted the cost of plugging in, said Dan DeVries, calling it a “complete business shift.” 

“We changed our whole point-of-sale system; we spent close to $20,000,” he said.

The farm was receiving anywhere from 80 to 100 orders per day at their peak. 

“We were just running off our feet, one day to the next it was crazy,” he recently said from a 2,000-square-foot retail space; expanded from  700-square-foot this past spring to make room for safer in-person shopping. 

While  online ordering has since tapered off, the trend isn’t going away, with  DeVries still receiving between 10 and 15 online orders per day. 

Colonial Florists, a St. Catharines-based supplier of flowers to major chains like Costco, Longos, and Home Depot, were forced to head online  after the chains slashed orders or opted not to open gardening centres  at all back in March and April.

Ron van der Zalm, one of Colonial’s four owners, said there were sleepless  nights, sick with worry, as they tried to figure out what to do with 14  acres of flowers ready to wilt into a substantial loss. 

“We’re  thinking: do we open up our own little shops throughout Niagara  wherever we can, on street corners and parking lots to move our  product?” van der Zalm said.  

In  the end, Colonial went online with curbside pickup available at their  greenhouse location. With other growers in mind, van der Zalm said they  told other garden centres of their plan to move online ahead of the move  and maintained prices high enough to keep from undercutting.

“We  spent the money, we basically took our catalogue that we would give to  our wholesalers and put it online, open to the public to purchase from  us directly,” he said. “A lot of people just bought to help support us,  which was really, really nice to see.” 

By mid-May sales had built back up with their larger clients to the point where they couldn’t keep up with retail any longer. 

At  a small family farm in St. Ann’s, Alison and Larry Moore are raising  their children and grass-fed cattle at Rosedene Acres while working  separate, off-farm jobs. 

The Moores recently received word that they were approved for the full $5,000 after having applied back in April. 

The  cash will allow them to revamp their 15-year-old website, which by  modern standards is stuck in the past. Without the funding, Alison said  they wouldn’t be able to afford an upgrade. 

They’re  now shopping around with website designers and hope to have a refreshed  online presence launched by the end of January that will allow for  online ordering. 

During  the pandemic, inquiries about the Moores’ beef product have increased  and as a result, Alison is spending more time behind the screen and  hopes the website upgrade will streamline the inquiry and order process  for her too. 

In  total, 46 Niagara businesses, made up of wineries, breweries, farms,  greenhouses, and food businesses, are approved to receive funding  through the initiative with amounts ranging between $870 and $5,000.