FARM 21: Firmly Rooted pivots to greater CSA focus during pandemic
BY DENNY SCOTT
Firmly Rooted, a farming operation in North Huron, faced challenges during the pandemic due to regular marketing opportunities closing down, however by shifting gears, the company was able to manage.
Brian Wiley and Tamara McMullen, owners of Firmly Rooted, moved to the site several years ago and found success through not only their community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiative, where they sell directly from the farm, but also through local farmers’ markets and providing for local restaurants. However, the latter two avenues weren’t available during the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic.
McMullen, in an interview with The Citizen, said she and Wiley considered themselves lucky they were able to continue their business through the pandemic. She said that, while there were challenges, it proved an opportunity for the couple to grow food for their community.
“The demand for local food has gone up significantly,” she said. “Basically, what happened was we lost our restaurant and farmers’ market sales in the early days of the pandemic.”
She said Firmly Rooted pivoted and focused on its CSA boxes, which offer a weekly subscription, and ended up doing double the CSA business in 2020 over 2019.
“It meant we were lucky enough to continue to grow and sell food, we just had to figure out how to distribute and package it and manage all the moving pieces,” she said.
The success has continued through to 2021, she said, as the CSA’s spring subscription shares have sold out and summer and winter are also moving well.
“We’ve continued to focus on that and we’ve had incredible uptake,” she said. “The spring shares sold out in three days.”
She said she had never seen that kind of excitement for the system, especially not in such a short time frame.
“We’re quite blown away,” she said, adding that the spring shares were only added last year as an experiment. “The uptake overall has been incredible and we’re really excited about this year’s growing seasons.”
While the duo loves working with farmers’ markets and restaurants, and plan to continue to work those sales into their program, they love being able to focus on the “more connected relationship” provided by the expansion of the CSA.
“You see the same people, week after week, and you get to know them a little bit,” she said. “They get to know our farm and our story and it really feels like we are feeding them. They’re eating mostly from our farm for their vegetables.”
She said they’ve received great feedback and, as they weren’t aiming for the restaurant and farmers’ markets, they were able to “have more fun with” some of their seed choices and experiment.
“When you’re growing for restaurants and the farmers’ market, you can focus on things you can sell large volumes of, or that are economically feasible,” she said. “You end up kind of looking at your crop mix and feeling like you should be cutting low performers, but Brian and I really love farming and growing all kinds of plants.”
She said that, with the CSA, diversity is a goal, so being able to push seasons or grow things that have a relatively unique season, was a great experience.
She pointed to relatively unique additions to the CSA like chinese broccoli in the early spring or winter squash as examples.
As far as drawing in a new audience, McMullen said that they’ve seen growth across several different groups for the CSA, including people who would normally buy at the farmers’ markets and people joining due to word of mouth.
While they have seen the CSA’s popularity take off, there have been some challenges McMullen said.
“It wasn’t a seamless process,” she said. “There were some folks that were motivated by fear and saw large scale greenhouses close because of COVID-19.”
Some people weren’t ready for the commitment that is required to eat in-season food, which is different from buying at the grocery store.
“It was a challenge in some cases to educate people,” she said, adding that some people left mid-season or didn’t renew. “That’s part of the magic of the CSA is that the right customers are the ones that stick it out.
“There’s nothing wrong with people who don’t want to be part of a CSA, it’s not a model for everyone,” she said.
For more information, visit www.firmlyrooted.ca.