Public spaces may never be the same: Ottawa farmers’ markets adjust to COVID-19

Zach Dayler had big plans for his first year as Ottawa Markets’ executive director. COVID-19 was not one of them.    

“Obviously none of us were expecting a pandemic,” Dayler told The Pigeon in an interview. “This is uncharted territory.”

Dayler joined Ottawa Markets, the municipal service corporation that runs the Parkdale and ByWard markets in Ottawa, Ont., in March of 2020. His team was forced to adapt to COVID-19 limitations in the early weeks of Canada’s shutdown to support vendors.

Later in March, when Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the emergency shutdown of all non-essential businesses in the province, spaces like the Byward and Parkdale markets were deemed essential food services. Ottawa Public Health guidelines for farmers’ markets, however, meant these spaces would not be operating normally.

“We were able to pivot very quickly,” he said. “I think we have a responsibility to make sure that farmers and producers can put food on the table.”

Farmers’ Market Ontario, under the guidance of provincial protocols, recommended that the markets’ organizers introduce online ordering and pickup options to safely continue produce sales.

Ottawa Markets incorporated online purchases through Local Line, an Ontario-based website for orders between customers and food suppliers. Local Line allows market organizers to display each vendor and their products on a centralized page.

For Ottawa Markets, introducing online ordering was a hurdle for both vendors and customers. The attractiveness of a farmers’ market comes from not only its local produce, but from its familiar faces, public seating, and ready-made snacks. Visiting a web page doesn’t have the same charm.

“There are a variety of factors that have caused farmers and producers to look at their product and […] look for ways to innovate,” Dayler said. “Online pickup is a very unnatural thing for a farmers’ market.”

While Ottawa Markets gave vendors some financial assistance by adjusting daily and monthly space rental fees to account for reduced market hours and visitors, Dayler noted that the organization had to prioritize its own finances as well.

“We have bills that we have to pay,” he said. “Just getting the stalls and stands up in Parkdale [Market] probably [costs] about $15 to $20 thousand [per year]. And that’s all generated from [vendor] sales.”

Ottawa Markets isn’t the only farmers’ market organization in Ottawa using Local Line to connect with customers. Brett Weddle, who manages the Main Farmers’ Market in Old Ottawa East, found Local Line to be the best option for his market, too, because it centralizes the vendors’ products on one page.

“We’re able to put all our products on the same site [with Local Line],” Weddle said. “Then consumers can filter our list based on the vendor or based on keywords or categories.”

Weddle received relatively positive feedback from customers who used Local Line to arrange pickup or delivery purchases with Main Farmers’ Market vendors.

“I have had probably somewhere from 10 to 20 people complain that they couldn’t get it working, but that is out of some 400 customers,” he said. “People have been able to figure it out.”

An illustration showing three strawberries.

Stuart Oke, co-owner and operator of Rooted Oak Farm, who sells in the capital city but grows produce nearby in Montebello, Q.C., found navigating Ottawa’s farmers’ market system an uncertain process.

“It was immediately clear that the existence of [farmers’ markets] was going to be in question,” Oke said. “It was going to be really hard to predict what we could expect from [what is] normally a pretty regular and dependable marketing stream.”

Rooted Oak Farm typically relies on farmers’ market sales for roughly 60 to 70 per cent of its annual income. After considering how municipal and provincial regulations surrounding farmers’ markets could limit those sales, the farm’s owners knew they needed to adapt.

“The city had their own regulations and their own restrictions on how city-owned property was used,” said Oke. “We had severe regulations which hampered farmers’ ability to sell, to the point where it almost wasn’t worth being open.”

Most of Ottawa’s farmers’ markets adopted a hybrid sales model at the beginning of June, introducing in-person sales while continuing online orders. Even then, Rooted Oak held off on attending any markets in person or selling their produce online through a market’s system until vendors and customers could return to a less complicated experience. 

“There haven’t been the numbers to warrant us going,” he said. “It’s a lot of hoops to have to jump through, when [a customer] could just get in line for 15 minutes outside of any grocery store in the city.”

A man and a woman stand together in front of a farmers' market stand with vegetables on display. Their tent has the words "Rooted Oak Farm: Certified Organic Vegetables" written on it.
Co-owners Stuart and Nikki Oke in front of their market stand. Image: Rooted Oak.

Unsure of the potential success of socially-distant farmers’ markets, Rooted Oak’s team made the decision to prioritize other kinds of sales, like their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. 

CSA shares are shares of a farm’s annual harvest which customers buy in exchange for regular deliveries of the farm’s produce throughout the summer and fall growing seasons. These programs give producers a more reliable income stream. 

According to Oke, while increasing the amount of produce set aside for Rooted Oak’s CSA program by 30 to 40 per cent meant less of it was destined for market stands, the risk paid off. The program filled its slots in a month and a half.

Zoltan Sara, who owns Addison Gardens in Addison, Ont., typically drives into Ottawa on the weekend to attend markets. He also increased the number of CSA shares his farm was offering when Ontario’s COVID-19 restrictions were implemented. 

Before prioritizing his CSA program, Sara struggled to find success with online sales. Because each market used a slightly different method for online sales, he found it frustrating to manage multiple accounts as a vendor. 

While Main Street Market uses Local Line to display all its vendors’ products at once, the Ottawa Farmers’ Market organization, with locations across the city, asks vendors to set up e-commerce pages independently, and allows them to hand off orders at one of their locations. 

According to Sara, he preferred using Local Line because it was easier for customers. At Lansdowne, Sara’s customers told him they had trouble using Ottawa Farmers’ Market’s system—or lack thereof—to buy from vendors.

“A lot of people were complaining to me [about it],” he said. “It was very difficult to navigate.”

Like Rooted Oak, Addison Garden’s CSA program has been more successful than ever this year—so much so that Sara is taking a step back from most of his farmers’ market sales.

“I had so many CSA requests that I couldn’t support [attending multiple] markets,” he said. “I’m only attending the Main Street farmers’ market right now, and I’m doing a fairly large CSA for my size of farm.”

Despite some customer confusion, Sara was pleasantly surprised with the support he has received from customers. He hopes if anything, COVID-19 has shown Ottawa residents the value of local farmers.

“I think people realized that it’s important to have your local food supply,” he said. “You just never know what’s going to happen. And if you don’t have farms, and if you don’t have local produce, and the border [shuts down], then what?”

An illustration showing three ears of corn.

Farmers aren’t the only market vendors impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns. Natali Harea, the owner and founding chef of Nat’s Bread Company, lost most of her clients—both restaurants and grocers—overnight.

“Monday [March 16], we had [most] of our clients still open,” she said. “By the end of Monday, we had lost basically 90 per cent of our business.”

While Harea’s bakery typically sells to other businesses and at farmers’ markets, shifting towards home deliveries for individual customers, instead of retailers, helped keep Nat’s Bread Company afloat.

Ahead of June, as farmers’ markets in Ottawa began online sales and socially-distant reopenings, Harea also began making sales through various markets’ online systems. 

Nat’s Bread Company signed up for online sales with the Ottawa Markets, the Beechwood Market, and the Kanata Farmers’ Market, all Ottawa-based. 

“[Home delivery] seemed like a really easy progression for us because we do our own deliveries anyway,” Harea said. “That pivot probably saved us.”

While Ottawa Markets had vendors upload their information to Local Line, the Beechwood Market embedded sales directly into its website, and the Kanata Farmers’ Market decided not to host sales on behalf of vendors.

Harea found having to create multiple vendor sales profiles frustrating, but necessary to connect with customers from different neighbourhoods in the city.

“We had three different markets, with three different stores to set up, and three different online systems to work with,” she said. “It wasn’t easy.”

Despite these difficulties, Harea is proud of how the bakery has continued to make sales in the midst of a pandemic. As Ottawa slowly starts rolling back limitations on public spaces, Harea hopes small businesses continue to receive government financial support. 

“I am really hopeful that, for as long as our businesses aren’t able to function at a full capacity, there will be subsidies available to us from the government,” she said. “Those have really helped us feel less stress.”

An illustration showing a bunch of carrots.

To Ontario farmers, especially local, small-scale operations like Rooted Oak and Addison Gardens, the COVID-19 pandemic is just one of many hurdles they have faced in the past decade. Climate change is making annual weather patterns less predictable than ever, and is forcing farms of every size to adapt

In addition, farmland costs are skyrocketing, and more and more farmers are entering into debt to make ends meet. The total outstanding debt of Ontario farmers has increased from slightly over $22 billion in 2015 to nearly $30 billion in 2019.

“Nationally, farmers have never had more debt than we do now,” said Oke. “A lot of the solutions that the government is holding out right now […] just further increase that debt.”

However, according to Oke, COVID-19 has created a noticeable difference in how Ottawa residents value their local farmers.

“That’s been one of the only silver linings through this whole [pandemic],” he said. “There’s been an unbelievable interest in local food, more so than when we started our farm.”

Oke hopes the interest in small farms and organic produce continues, even after the pandemic is under control.

“There are lots of people who are really concerned about their food, about farmers, and about where their food is going to come from,” Oke said. “This is an opportunity for us to imagine a food system which is more equitable.”

To Weddle, who manages his own farm alongside the Main Farmers’ Market, the pandemic and customers’ renewed interest in local produce may be the final push farmers need to convince the provincial and federal governments that sustainable change is worth fighting for. 

“[The priority is] not only trying to shift our economy, but putting money into researching how you can farm sustainably,” Weddle said. “Those solutions need to be in place. It would be nice if our elected leaders were taking charge in these kinds of things.”

“In the grand scheme of things, compared to climate change, loss of biodiversity, and food insecurity, COVID is an immediate, but small, problem.”

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