COVID-19 Sparks a Rebirth of the Local Farms & CSA programs

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the future of the Cannard Family Farm was looking bleak. Their organic vegetables supplied a single Berkeley restaurant.

Ross Cannard is the son of an iconic leader in the local organic movement in California. Bob Cannard built his 30-year career by rejecting organic certification in favour of his own “better than organic” breed of “natural process agriculture,” enriching the soil on his Green String Farm with crushed rock and compost.

He and his son have long sold the fruits of their labour to the famous restaurant Chez Panisse, where, since 1971, chef Alice Waters has pioneered an elegant cuisine based entirely on fresh, local foods straight from the farm.

But in March, the stay-at-home order hit, and the restaurant closed.

“You’re a farmer. Plants are already in the ground,” says Evan Wiig, director of membership and communications for the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. “You make plans months and months in advance. You can’t just turn on a dime.”

Waters was worried about the vulnerable situation her workers and producers were finding themselves in. She rushed to establish a subscription CSA, which stands for community-supported agriculture, offering weekly food boxes that could be picked up at the closed restaurant, filled with goodies from her regular producers like Cannard.

She was trying to connect her network with the people who would like to have that food in their home, skipping the restaurant for now, and helping people do the cooking in their own kitchen.

Cannard augments that market with his own local CSA, setting up a farm stand in the parking lot of Baker & Cook, a café in nearby Boyes Hot Springs, now serving only takeout. Along with produce, Cannard has his olive oil available, as well as wine from a friend’s vineyard, and flowers from another local farm. Friends and neighbours are among his 100 or so customers.

Similar situations are sprouting up across North America. In Edmonton, every year, farmer Graham Sparrow welcomes spring. But this year, he’s plain crazy about it.

That’s because of his certified organic farm, Sparrow’s Nest, is part of a business model that stands to benefit from COVID-19. Known as community-supported agriculture (CSA), the model sees customers pay farmers upfront to guarantee their supply of vegetables throughout the season.

Sparrow is celebrating 20 years of farming 20 acres of certified organic soil near Opal, and with this crisis, he is almost sold out.”

Last year, Sparrow sold 35 shares for his farm to customers who care about fresh, local, and organic. This year so far, he’s already at 40 shares and is still taking more orders. Customers tell him they’re worried about disruptions to the supply chain caused by COVID-19.

“People are talking about food security, local food, the supply chain — the COVID-19 words of panic,” says Sparrow, who also has a booth at the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market starting May 2. “It’s about time. I’ve been working so hard and people need to wake up.”

The pandemic may be a boon for Sparrow, whose shares are competitively priced at $825 a family for 18 weeks of fresh produce starting in late June with spinach, baby lettuce, and scallions. But other market garden farmers are less enthusiastic about the current situation.

Tam Andersen, owner of Prairie Gardens and Adventure Farm near Bon Accord, says the business is a mixture of community-supported agriculture, restaurant supply and tourism. Two of those three anchors have disappeared.

Tam Andersen (right) and her daughter Laurel Andersen (left) in the tomato greenhouse at Prairie Garden farm, northwest of Bon Accord, Alberta, where they are running a community-supported agriculture program. Larry Wong / Postmedia

With mandated restrictions on gathering, the 25,000 seasonal visitors who usually come to the farm for activities (including a petting zoo, plus strawberry and pumpkin festivals) will trickle to unprecedented lows. RGE RD is Andersen’s only restaurant client still operating and although she hopes to sell more CSA shares to make up the difference, it’s uncertain that will be enough.

Janelle Herbert of Riverbend Gardens, which has both a farmers market business and a CSA program, says her CSA sales are up 100 percent over sales last April. One factor is that people have dropped their plans to travel this summer, and now will be home to enjoy week-after-week of fresh produce delivery.

Still, only about one-third of Riverbend’s business is CSA clients and Herbert worries about the overall viability of Alberta’s farmers’ markets this season. Usually, summer markets are bustling with customers, who enjoy the fresh offerings and the opportunity to socialize. Though markets are allowed to be open, customer numbers have been dramatically reduced by health officials. Also, people are worried about gathering, even at smaller markets.

“I’m hoping people will still see the farmers market as a safe place to shop and continue to go there,” says Herbert.

She feels optimistic that citizens value fresh and local enough to visit the markets, perhaps buying for more than one family to help limit crowds while still supporting farmers.

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