In the midst of COVID-19, we at York Durham Headwaters hope everyone is staying safe and healthy. With Ontario residents diligently practicing physical distancing, our businesses and organizations are doing their part to help “flatten the curve.”
To help facilitate physical distancing for the public, our essential workplaces—most notably our farms and food providers—have developed creative ways to ensure families can still enjoy the farm fresh food they love. To assist our independent food providers in York Region, York Farm Fresh has put together a list of how its affiliate businesses are adapting their operations to meet the needs consumers.
In this article, we’ve spoken to just two of the many farms and food producers under York Farm Fresh to see what “business as usual” is like in these times.
In Mount Albert, farmers Michael and Judie Zajac strive to produce a premium product by raising their animals in a stress-free environment, on grass grazing pastures, and without the use of antibiotics, steroids or hormones.
In this time of COVID-19, the Zajacs have moved to a system of taking orders over the phone and arranging an appropriate time for clients to come to the farm, whereupon orders will be placed in trunks to limit physical interaction. For those that live within ten miles of the farm and cannot drive, staff will deliver orders to clients’ front doors. To avoid handling cash, AE Natural Meats is accepting Visa, Mastercard and e-transfers.
Even with the necessary health and safety restrictions reducing visitation, business has been good for the farm. “There has been a good response from the community, and everyone has been so respectful,” Judie says. “There is lots of talking with people about what they’re purchasing, and educating customers on different ways of cooking. Half the time, it’s just talking on the phone—not only about the store, but just laughing and giggling.” It’s been an unexpected development, Judie finds, that in this time of physical distancing, people crave a sense of community now more than ever, and are seeking it in ways that they might not have before when they were able to go out and connect face-to-face.
However, Judie does admit that the uncertainty is a heavy burden. “It weighs on you,” she says. “We have one person helping part-time, but we have had to reduce her hours drastically. That is quite sad and something we never want to do.” There is also the uncertainty surrounding planning product quantities for summer farmers’ markets. “Do I have enough lamb? Beef? Chicken?” Judie wonders. “Is it a good time to be investing in more ewes and cows? That is the general thought process at this point.”
For our small businesses like our farm enterprises to successfully weather this economic hardship, community support will play a critical role. “I think it’s important for farmers like us to understand that we’re in this together,” Judie says. “We need to share business, especially when we don’t all have the same product. It’s not a competition. I find that the independent farms have been good at that so far.”
During COVID-19, Round the Bend Farm has actually extended its hours on Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., rather than from 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., in an effort to accommodate those who are able to come out. For those who do not feel comfortable coming into the farm store, staff are putting together email or text orders and are accepting e-transfers to reduce the need to handle cash. Upon arrival, staff will deliver the orders right to customers’ trunks.
“For those who do come out to our farm store, we’re going above and beyond the practices suggested,” says owner Sue Feddema. “We disinfect every single surface after each customer leaves, from the freezer handles to door knobs—every possible surface gets wiped down.” In addition to this, staff are limiting customers to five at a time, which is the maximum amount that can be accommodated within the store while still allowing visitors to keep a safe physical distance.
“A freezer length,” Sue says. “We have all of our freezers in the store, and that’s how far apart we tell our customers to stay. It’s not just about keeping you safe, it’s about keeping us safe as well,”
There is no denying that times are tough right now on our small, family-based agriculture operations here in York Durham Headwaters, and economic viability is a concern for our farmers. “This is really affecting our business,” Sue states. “We have the market, and we are a CSA [Community-Supported Agriculture] farm as well, where we rely on customers for regular business during our growing season. But we don’t know what that’s going to look like this year. Our Easter turkey sales are usually big every year, but this year the numbers are not where they should be because families aren’t getting together.”
In addition to its food production operations, Round the Bend does school tours to the tune of 6,000 children each year. These tours are in all likelihood not going ahead this spring, and no one knows what the fall cycle will look like. But at the same time, Sue and her staff still have to plan for a fall program in case there is one. “We still have to put the expenses into our farm like labour needed to harvest the food that we grow,” she points out. “We usually hire seven Canadian students who rely on us through the summer for employment, and I’ve just had to text them and tell them we likely won’t have work for them. This is huge.”
Support Local in Times of Need
As you can see, our small farms and businesses which are an integral feature of our communities need our support now more than ever. To find out how you can keep local agriculture and food production sustainable during these times of uncertainty, visit York Farm Fresh’s post about how their partners are adapting to the COVID-19 restrictions. Or, visit or call the farms directly for more information:
AE Natural Meats – Mount Albert
Brooks Farms – Mount Albert
ClearWater Farm – Georgina
Coopers CSA Farm – Zephyr
Hamilton Farm – Sutton West
Hutchings Farm – Pefferlaw
Niemi Family Farm – Mount Albert
Pine Farms Orchard – King City
Pioneer Brand Honey – Nobleton
Round the Bend Farm – Kettleby
Simpson Family Farm – Whitchurch-Stouffville
Thompson Potato Farm – Mount Albert
Story by Katherine Ryalen