FARM 21: Producers find connections despite pandemic
BY DENNY SCOTT
With the COVID-19 pandemic resulting in every aspect of life being challenged due to lockdowns, local producers found ways to connect with consumers to help maintain their own businesses and supply their neighbours.
For some, it represented reinvesting time and effort into farmgate or online sales, while others required a complete change in business model to weather the pandemic.
BLYTH CREEK MAPLE FARM
Blyth Creek Maple Farm’s Val and Steve Bachert were concerned when the lockdown hit, however the family pulled through thanks to an online storefront.
“[Daughter] Courtney and Val put time into developing the online store,” Steve said, adding that there wasn’t a lot of product left when the first lockdown hit.
Val turned to baked goods to help promote the store, and get the name of the farm out there.
“People would do farmgate pick-ups [of the baked goods] and then purchase maple products on top of that,” she said. “The baked goods were more of a way to keep our exposure in the community.”
When the first lockdown hit, the baked goods, online store and farmgate sales picked up, Val said, but they slowed down when the lockdown ended. After that, the Bacherts moved their products to Nature’s Nest in Londesborough on Saturdays, which helped both businesses, Val said.
She explained it gave them a static place to have baked goods for sale and keep their name out there, while also bringing people interested in the products into the store.
However, the online market offered a more regular income stream instead of a large amount of sales happening in the early spring. It also saw purchases being made from farther afield than ever before, including orders shipping to Fort Erie, Huntsville and St. Thomas.
“We had no expectations and no idea going into the lockdown or afterwards,” she said. “We were really encouraged by how many people came around. We had new customers who we hadn’t met before, and it seemed like the community came around to support local businesses.”
The second lockdown came at an inopportune time according to Val, who said that it hit just as the family was setting up its sugar bush and expanding its system.
“We were working hard to get the sugar bush set up,” she said. “We’ve added 200 trees to our pipeline and we’ve got a few new pieces of equipment.”
She said the family was busy, and hoping to open up shortly after the second lockdown was lifted to offer the annual sugar bush tours.
“We normally do those at the end of March,” she said. “I’m pretty sure we’ll be able to.”
She said prior to the pandemic the tours resulted an increase in purchases, adding they are one of the biggest outlets for the family’s ales.
Over the past two years, the Bacherts have added to their line of products outside of baking to try and generate more interest in the brand, including a Sriracha maple hot sauce and a barbecue sauce.
For more information on the Bacherts’ Blyth Creek Maple Farm, visit blythcreekmaplefarm.com.
STOREY’S MAPLE SYRUP, HONEY AND PORK PRODUCTS
Barb Storey said her family company faced some quiet sales periods when the pandemic hit, having normally moved a lot of product through local farmers’ markets.
Storey told The Citizen that when the pandemic first hit, she didn’t know what was coming.
People started coming to the farm, she said, and while it wasn’t overwhelming, there was a good number of customers taking advantage of curbside pick-up. She said that, with the farmers’ markets closed, people were buying significant stores of food to last two weeks, instead of shopping every week.
“People were buying more than they normally would’ve,” she said, “but not coming as often.”
She said sales were good, and have continued to be good, resulting in certain bottle sizes of maple syrup selling out.
“Things have been going very well despite the pandemic,” Storey said. “People come with their masks on just as if it was a [traditional] store. I have to sanitize after people have been through.”
While the farmgate sales have increased, she said there were significant problems resulting from the fire that destroyed part of Green's Meat Market in June of 2020. Her regular butcher, Zehr’s near Dashwood, was backed up as a result of the closure of the Green’s plant. The problems were compounded by her butcher’s own brush with COVID-19.
“I was basically selling from empty shelves,” she said. “We didn’t have much.”
It took time for the butcher to catch up, she said, but she did catch up. The result, last year, was that she booked several months in advance.
“Usually I’d book at the end of the year for the following year, but I booked in June for this year,” she said. “With the pigs on the marketing side, we’re getting backed up because of the packing plant closures.”
The second wave has been worse for the pork industry, she said, as it’s resulted in more closures and more delays than the first wave. She said she has an entire barn of pigs ready to go that are now on maintenance feed, which has become a “worrisome problem”.
“Some of the plants in the west have shut right down,” she said. “They figured it’d be close to a month or six weeks to clean up the backlog. In the meantime, there are more pigs scheduled to come into our barn, so I don’t know where we’re going to go.”
On the farmgate side, she said she’s caught up, which is important, as it’s been a popular avenue for the business over the past year.
She said people have wanted to buy local since the pandemic hit, and will continue to do so, so having products to take to local farmers’ markets when they start back up, is important.
For more information, call 519-527-1049.
BACHERT3 PREMIUM SAUSAGES
Bachert3 Premium Sausages in Auburn, run by the Groothuis family, has had a unique experience as a result of the pandemic.
Brent Groothuis, in an interview with The Citizen, said, considering the past year as a net result, his family’s farmgate business hasn’t done as well overall as in previous years.
“The main reason why that was bad was the later start to the farmers’ market,” he said. “That was our main outlet.”
He also said that, as a result of the pandemic, the business wasn’t able to sell sausage on a bun, which isn’t a large component of overall income from the business, but a noticeable amount.
“We were hoping we’d be able to serve at a market,” he said. “But, because we’re under the farmers’ market group, food wasn’t allowed. That was disappointing.”
While the business lost income at markets, Groothuis said more people were definitely coming to the farmgate than ever before, especially at the start of the pandemic.
“We had a lot more people phoning us and stopping by to get products,” he said. “It was definitely a good thing to have more foot traffic.”
In the end, however, looking at dollars and cents, the business didn’t do well over the past year.
“Summertime was the hardest,” Groothuis said. “We had that little bit of hope and anticipation that things would open up a little bit more.”
He said that if food trucks could open up, they could begin selling, but it didn’t work out that way.
For more information, visit Bachert Premium Sausages on Facebook.
HANNA’S MAPLE SYRUP
One way to avoid a downturn as a result of the pandemic is to focus on a network of locations that carry farmgate products, which the Hanna family, owners of Hanna’s Maple Syrup, did.
Jeremy Hanna, in an interview with The Citizen, said that, through a network of markets across the area, as well as through online orders, the company has been able to weather the pandemic.
“We’ve got markets scattered in the area, like Goderich, Clinton and Wingham,” he said, adding Hanna’s recently started selling its products through Watson’s Home Hardware in Blyth. “We send orders across Canada. Not a great deal, but enough.”
He said people try the product once and order it online over and over again.
The company has grown thanks to those networks, Hanna said, including a new 35,000-square-foot facility and 10,000 trees tapped.
“A lot of our product is still sold in bulk to bigger packers,” he said.
Growing the network of markets, however, can be a challenge due to the time it takes keeping the family away from the farm.
For more information, visit hannasmaple.ca.