Demand for organic food hasn’t been slowed by the pandemic even though many consumers have struggled with job losses and reduced income.
“The thing that’s been most surprising is seeing that the demand for organic continues, despite the income level people are at,” said Tia Loftsgard, executive director of the Canada Organic Trade Association.
“Organic continues to grow even in the face of crisis. It’s very much a resilient sector that continues to be able to pivot where we need to.”
The organic sector has faced the same hurdles as other parts of the agriculture industry but its customers have remained loyal.
“They might shop online more or maybe source from brands that they never knew about before,” said Loftsgard. “But nobody is saying that they’re going to give up organic. It’s their values that they’re shopping with.”
A recent survey by the association found that 77 per cent of respondents felt eating organic was more important than ever for the health of their families.
“Because this is a health issue, nobody is willing to compromise on something that they feel would strengthen their immune system, so they’re continuing to source organic options,” she said.
Organic produce grower Andrew Mans has seen demand increase.
And for the most part, organic producers have been able to keep up with that shift in demand.
“I don’t think the pandemic is a good thing, but for our business, it actually kind of has been a good thing,” said the owner of Mans Organics near Coaldale. “Sales have been really strong.”
The Mans family was at the end of their stored vegetable season when the pandemic started in March and they saw their first spike in demand. Since then, the greenhouse season has started, and the demand has only continued to grow — especially with the local fresh-food delivery services they partner with in Calgary.
“We’ve seen more than typical, more than average sales,” said Mans. “I’m predicting that demand is going to stay strong this summer. I’m feeling positive.”
Mans also works with a distributor that serves over 100 restaurants in Calgary, and with widespread closures, that market has been a challenge. But Mans adapted.
“We’ve just tweaked a few product lines to make them available for our other customers,” he said. “For instance, we grew cherry tomatoes on the vine for the restaurants, and when there wasn’t that demand, we just mixed up the colours and put them in a clamshell for the grocery store.
“Demand didn’t slow down — it just shifted where the produce was going.”
Market access a concern
It’s been a similar story on Steven Snider’s organic grain operation near Edberg.
“Self-isolation is spring seeding and harvest, so it’s been kind of normal for us,” he said with a laugh. “It’s not been a big adjustment. There was an increase in demand for milling wheat, but it was just a bump in the road — came and went.”
His malt barley contracts, on the other hand, have been a challenge because of fewer festivals and summer events.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty around pricing and what’s going to happen with production contracts.”
But he doesn’t think the organic sector is unique in that.
“There’s real fear on all sides,” he said. “Agriculture is on the knife’s edge right now where either we’re going to see an incredible drop in prices or an incredible rise. I think the volatility and uncertainty in the next six months is going to be tough to predict.
“We’re seeing that in the meat markets, we’re seeing that in the grain markets — we’re seeing that in all markets, and I don’t think organic is insulated from any of those challenges.”
Aside from a softening in prices, market access is an ongoing concern for organic exporters who are competing for containers.
“Market accessibility has probably been the biggest issue — sure, we can grow it, but once we do have the products grown, how do we get them to market? It’s a lot of logistics to work through,” said Loftsgard.
That’s made even trickier by the sector’s unique nature Organic audits through the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada have mostly shifted online, with plans for surprise audits later.
Beyond that, producers are relatively limited in the inputs and seed they can source, so while they’re dealing with more typical challenges like labour shortages and transportation, they also have to navigate the narrower organic supply chain.
“As organic operators, there are only so many options on what you can source, so if you’re used to sourcing from India and that’s no longer an option, what do you do?” said Loftsgard. “There goes your business model.”
Weathering the storm
By and large, though, the organic industry has risen to the challenge and is taking the positives out of the pandemic.
“I think many of us are seeing a real positive element coming out the other side where consumers understand the value of sourcing locally so that we’re not a food-dependent nation,” said Loftsgard. “As long as we can work out the infrastructure around getting to market, I think we’re going to see a rejuvenated move toward local organic consumption.”
Mans said he believes people have gained a greater appreciation for local food as a result of the pandemic and that could translate into more demand for local organics.
“What’s happened with the food supply chain interruptions is that more people have realized that there is something to buying local food,” he said.
“It just feels good to know that we’re producing food here locally, and we’re fairly confident that we’ll be able to get our produce out in some way, shape, or form.
“Everybody needs to eat, and it’s nice to know we can help fill that void.”
“I’ve been doing this for 34 years, and every year has its challenges — it just shifts and changes,” he said. “Organic aside, agriculture as a whole has always been forced to adapt. Every year, there’s something that’s throwing a curveball at agriculture.
“The pandemic is a new one — that one’s not on the list of ‘do you remember when.’ It’s a whole set of new equations, but we’re always weathering a storm. It’s kind of our normal.”