By Tim Kalinowski
Alberta field vegetable growers are feeling the strains of COVID-19 profoundly, says Gary van der Waal, director at large for the South Zone for the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association.
Not only are some growers concerned they will not be able to get the seasonal workers they need in time for spring planting, he says, but they are also fearful the local food market will be severely hampered by the ongoing crisis.
“Everybody is isolation,” he says. “We’re trying to do the social distancing, which is just as difficult on farmers as everybody else. If not more because farmers are such a social bunch.
“I think we feel being stuck at our place, those sort of things are going to present their own challenges. Now we have the mental blocks that are going to come and inhibit our ambition to go out and do what needs to be done, because we are so concerned that even if we grow a great crop will there even be sales for it? It’s food, but are people going to be able to buy our food?
“For us, we are farm fresh and local so obviously our prices are different than when grocery stores buy from California or Mexico.”
Another major revenue source for local farm fresh growers, farmers’ markets, are currently closed for the season, says van der Waal, but there is no guarantee they will be open again even by this summer.
“With no farmers’ markets open, that’s another concern,” he admits. “For the majority of our growers, they use farmers’ markets to move their product. It compounds this whole concern of whether we are going to be able to move our products, and how.”
That leaves only direct marketing to customers online and through social media, or on-the-farm stores or stands, as perhaps the only options for many to get their products to market. This obviously brings its own risks if potential buyers bring COVID-19 out with them.
“There are those amongst us that are quite concerned about that,” admits van der Waal. “A lot of us have families and young kids, and some of us are older, but with the different people coming you don’t know what they are bringing to the farm.
“I think it is probably more concerning that we’re in the fruit and vegetable growing business where we want to keep providing a healthy product. We want to keep our farms as disease free as possible, including the coronavirus.”
Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association members are trying to brainstorm new ideas which might help with the current challenges they are facing– many of whom are already coming off a bad year of weather wrecks in 2019, says van der Waal.
Producers are also not sure if they will be eligible for federal loan programs announced through Farm Credit Canada last month or not, he says, as many are simply too small of operations and often fall through the cracks when such emergency programs are announced.
“We are such a small sliver of the ag industry,” he says. “We hope things will turn around, and people will be ready to buy when we have product.”
Van der Waal says in the meantime all the 300 members of the Alberta Farm Fresh Producers Association can do is get to work this spring, try to get a crop in on time, and hope for better days ahead.
“I like to tell the guys: ‘We’re farmers. We have been in really poor situations before, whether it’s the weather or the economy, and somehow we have always managed to pull through because we have a different outlook. We need to have a short memory for the bad things and a very long memory for the good things.’
“I think if we keep that in mind,” he says, “all those other challenges have passed, and so will this one.
“You have to do the best you can with what you have, and take it day by day,” he adds. “And think: ‘We’re going to put the crop in the ground, and grow it as good as we always have.’”