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For a lot of shoppers, going to a farmers’ market is about more than just getting groceries. It’s a ritual.
“I love this place… I love the complete package. It’s like family,” said Alex Pearson, then retail manager for the Garrison Brewery shop, when I interviewed him several years ago for a Halifax Magazine story on the brewery market.
Buying from the Halifax Brewery Farmers’ Market has a bit of a different feel these days. Go online, see what’s available, add to cart, click, pay. Or shop in person at the market in its new incarnation: the tiny Neighbourhood Goods store.
If everything had gone according to plan, on March 13, Farmers’ Markets of Nova Scotia (FMNS) executive director Justin Cantafio would have been on a plane to Mexico, heading off on vacation. Instead, he was still home, paying attention to the health directive limiting gatherings to fewer than 150 people.
“It was at that point in time that we realized this could potentially create difficulties for farmers’ markets, and that this would definitely be just the tip of the iceberg, or the first of what would be many incremental steps to ratchet in the direction of ensuring public health and safety,” Cantafio remembered.
Fortunately, Nova Scotia already had a model for how to transition market services online: the Wolfville Farmers’ Market, which had been offering online ordering and pickup through its WFM2GO portal for over two years. Using software called Local Food Marketplace, customers could select products from Wolfville Farmers’ Market vendors, then pick it up at an appointed place and time. Once pandemic crowd restrictions went into place, Wolfville quickly scaled up, offering delivery to Halifax locations too. As of May 5, there were eight different locations, stretching from Berwick to Dartmouth.
FMNS represents more than 30 farmers’ markets, most of which run seasonally, some outdoors. But Cantafio said only “nine or 10” of those were up and running in March. “And so that was the first thing: we wanted to make sure that we could figure out how to keep as many of these markets safely operating as possible, because they really are the economic backbone for so many small scale producers.”
FMNS quickly cut a deal with software vendors including Square and Local Food Marketplace to roll out the software for interested markets. A $30,000 grant from the provincial ministry of agriculture helped too.
Barely a month later, Cantafio said almost all the year-round markets have adopted some form of online ordering, as well as some of the seasonal ones. One of the exceptions is the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market, the busiest in the province. Visitors to the website are offered a pdf file listing vendors along with their social media and contact information.
Lane Farguson, manager of media relations and communications for the Halifax Port Authority, which includes the market, said “several vendors already incorporate online sales as part of their business model” and that the market is “exploring options” for vendors. But the sheer size of the market makes it complicated. “Just the fact that there are so many weekend vendors with the Seaport market. If all of the vendors were to ask for assistance in moving in that direction, we don’t have the capacity for that, to be perfectly honest. We’re dealing with some large numbers here.”
Farguson did say there would be an announcement coming — possibly this week — about some form of online ordering at Seaport, but couldn’t provide any more detail.
Speaking from her office in Eugene, Oregon, Local Food Marketplace co-founder Amy McCann said her company has seen “a huge uptick” in orders. “We’ve onboarded like 80 farmers’ markets in the last six weeks. It’s crazy.”
The software was originally written for a local food hub where McCann worked, and then she and partner Doug Frazier (who wrote the original code) decided to start licencing it.
McCann called the Wolfville market “kind of a pioneer in this space. As soon as this hit, everyone was like, ‘Wolfville does this, let’s ask them.’ They saw that their farmers’ market was serving some of their community really well, but not all of their community. So they decided to do online ordering, because they wanted a way to do midweek ordering for customers who were not going to go downtown. Maybe parking is tight, or some people don’t want to take their kids and drag them around — there are just so many reasons.” The online market “increased market vendors’ access to to other buyers, and it increased their [geographical] footprint as well.”
The Antigonish Farmers’ Market was supposed to be moving into a brand-new building on May 2, “But of course with what’s going on with COVID-19, that’s been delayed,” said market operations manager Lee DePonte.
Instead, the market’s gone online.
DePonte, a retired oil and gas industry geological tech, took up his position at the market on March 15 of this year. That’s the day after Nova Scotia declared a state of emergency.
“We weren’t sure what we were going to do. [The Antigonish Farmers’ Market] had experimented with an online market a little bit last summer, and had a little taste of what it was like,” DePonte said. “Of course, back in March when things were developing and we started to think about what we were going to do, I knew that FMNS had started to make a push to get as many markets online as possible. So we decided to go ahead and started recruiting some of our members, or vendors. We typically average 50-60 vendors a week at the height of the season, and right now we are sitting at 24 vendors online.”
Transitioning to online sales entails all kinds of complications and developing new skills — both for individual vendors and for markets themselves.
Markets, many of them small operations with little staff, have to make decisions about issues including platforms, capacity, packing, and pickup logistics. Speaking less than 48 hours after the Antigonish online shop went live, DePonte said, “Right now we are sitting at 171 confirmed orders and 58 unconfirmed orders — and it’s Tuesday.” Each of those orders needs to be picked and packed, and too many would overload the system. So Antigonish requires users to register first, and cuts off orders once capacity is reached.
Other markets have also been overwhelmed by the response. DePonte said he was told markets in Truro and New Glasgow expected “maybe 40 or 50 orders” when their online stores went up. “Well, Truro got 136 the first week and 300 the second week. As a matter of fact, both Truro and New Glasgow the first couple of weekends had to cut off orders early, because logistically they could only handle 300.”
For many, part of the appeal of going to the market is social — connecting directly with producers, running into your friends, listening to buskers, letting the kids play while you drink coffee. None of that translates online.
DePonte, who used to sell kettle corn at the market with his wife, said, “What I enjoyed the most was meeting people… I would say 99.9% of vendors are missing the social aspect of it. I think that’s a big part of your typical farmers’ market. Most of them thrive on their interactions with their customers, so I think that will be a hard part of this. We are hoping to be back by midsummer but ultimately we have no idea.”
For market vendors, making products available through online stores may mean a bit more time in front of the computer than they’re used to, and it requires what may be new skills for some — like photographing their products.
“We don’t really like them to use stock photography,” DePonte said. “We like them to take pictures of their own products… We tell them not to use stock photography because we want the customers to see the product they’re actually selling. Some of them struggle with it a bit. It’s a bit of a technology barrier for some, but I’m here to help too. I’ve put together some tutorial material to help them through that.”
McCann, of Local Food Marketplace, said they’ve tried to make the software as easy to use as possible, but there is still a learning curve for farmers. “If we’re not really careful in all of this we’re deepening the digital divide. Rural America, rural Canada, same thing. And farmers tend to be older on average and may not be very tech savvy. Often they chose farming because they are not that interested in sitting behind a computer all day. And then there is your newer generation who have adopted technology and they have a huge advantage in this COVID crisis because they know how to leverage tech and connect with their customers. The farms not using technology need to have a way to adopt technology and do it in a way that doesn’t cause a huge upheaval in their business.”
Of course, access to decent internet service is not a given in Nova Scotia. Cantafio said, “Nova Scotia has a huge internet connectivity issue and several cellphone blackout areas where there’s just little coverage. That’s a huge barrier for a lot of different producers.”
Interestingly, the Halifax Brewery Farmers’ Market decided not to use Local Food Marketplace, because they found it “super-complex” said Rachael Delano, the market’s community engagement coordinator.
The brewery market is offering online ordering (using Square), and within a week or so of the ban on gatherings, it had also set up a small five-day-a-week shop as a stand-in for the Saturday market.
Delano said the only reason the store got set up so quickly is that it was already in the works.
“We were in a lucky position, because the idea for the store was already created, the permits were on the way and the vendors were interested. So it was a no-brainer to make that our primary operation,” she said. “We are still very much in the learn-as-we-go phase though, because we never anticipated it would be a five-day-a-week grocery store.”
Because the store is open Tuesday to Saturday, Neighbourhood Goods doesn’t have to worry about getting overloaded with packing hundreds of orders for pickup on one day. But it has a different challenge. Because vendors come from a wide region, there is no one drop-off day, and as market staff have to enter the products as they come in, goods often show up as sold out in the online system.
Delano said, “The vendors drop off on different days. The thing we say is give us a call before you place your order, or send us an email the evening before so our inventory is super-up-to-date. We are trying to come up with a schedule but it’s difficult when they all come from different places. It’s hard to have them come at the same time and respect distancing.”
What’s most striking about visiting the brewery market these days is the silence. Spaces usually packed with vendors and shoppers stand empty. The steps where people usually congregate to drink coffee, snack, and chat are taped off.
A tap terminal sits on a table in the middle of the shop, which is set up so clients can walk in the same direction, picking up whatever they need. When it’s time to pay, the cashier asks customers what they have, totals it for them, and then they tap to pay. That way there’s no contact between staff and customers, who don’t even have to touch the counter.
“It’s kind of the honour system. Just tell us what’s in your bag and we’ll charge you for it,” Delano said. Orders for pick-up are placed on a table in a separate room.
Now that most of the year-round markets have some sort of online ordering and pickup system available, Cantafio is turning his attention to the seasonal markets. “It’s going to become a little bit more complex, depending on whether or not there’s an easing or slackening or change of restrictions regarding what types of businesses can operate and what type of population limitations there are,” he said. “I say that specifically for smaller seasonal farmer’s markets, many of which don’t actually have physical infrastructure, but rather are open-air markets. You know, the challenge for us in the upcoming weeks is how do we get the other farmers’ markets in Nova Scotia operating as safely as possible.”
Longer term, Cantafio hopes the success that farmers’ markets are seeing in reaching a broader audience will continue, and that they might help create more lasting interest in local food production. He called farmers’ markets “beautiful centres of commerce, but also social gathering hubs in places of cultural and social abundance… where community connections are forged, you get to know your producers and build a community.”
By moving online, Cantafio said, some vendors have seen increased sales. “But can we galvanize that? Let’s not go back to that old normal, but [create] a new normal where local food production is prioritized, where government support is not just on bailing out, but rather on building up regional capacity so that there’s more local food production and there are more options for local vendors to sell their products.”
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