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Local Growers Thrive Despite Pandemic

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Natural Collective Crop
The team at Natural Collective CSA. Sara Beth Dacombe

The season is off to a good start for CSA farmers, and they’re largely unaffected by the COVID-19 situation in Manitoba. With many Manitobans spending more time in their own homes and yards, interest in gardening and buying local is higher than ever.

Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) farms pre-sell their vegetables through allotments called shares and two local operations have already been sold out for weeks.

“Demand has been higher this year than it ever has been and we’re already sold out,” says Nick Rempel from Natural Collective CSA, a five-acre farm on Crown Valley Road. “I think people are nervous about their food sources, nervous about supply chain breakdowns. Or maybe they have an extra dose of civic pride and responsibility this year, so they want to support local.”

Last year Natural Collective sold 80 shares to individuals or families, while also supplying a considerable amount of produce to restaurants and a few farmers markets.

This year, they expected a downturn in demand due to the extra constraints currently in place for restaurants. So they decided to plant the same amount of food but double the amount of shares they usually make available to the public.

Rempel reports that even after they made an additional 70 shares available, they sold out quickly.

Now they just need to grow the food.

“We had a little bit of a false start in April,” says Rempel. “We had started some onions and then it got freezing cold for two weeks and germination rates dropped off completely for a little while, but now it’s good. It’s warm and things are coming up really nicely, so I think it’s going to be a good season.”

Chantal Wieler from Niverville Homegrown runs a CSA farm five miles south of Niverville. She also had no trouble selling all the shares allocated for the season and plans to set up her stand at Niverville Bigway grocery store like she does every year.

“Everything’s right on schedule, despite a very wet spring and seeding time. I was concerned we wouldn’t be on schedule,” says Wieler. “The shares sold very well and quickly, and slightly above last year. So I’m sold out of shares, but I always have produce for my stand. I’m anticipating a great yield this year.”

Wieler doesn’t want to speculate on why more people may be interested in CSA shares this year, but she says that a lot more people are interested in local farming and gardening overall.

“People are home and, let’s face it, they don’t know when they’re going back to work. Maybe they’re buying more local, but they also have time to plant their own gardens this year,” says Wieler. “Greenhouses are sold out of more things than ever. I have had trouble finding plants that I can usually wait and get a discount on this time of year. But I think it’s great. The more people that learn how to grow their own food, the better. It doesn’t hurt my feelings by any stretch.”

Natural Collective is staffed by the four farmers who own it as well as three seasonal workers this year. Rempel isn’t concerned about COVID-19 affecting how they all work together at the acreage, but he says they will take extra precautions and act immediately if someone on their team becomes ill.

“We’re pretty distant while we work, but if someone at our place gets COVID, then we will assume we would all have been exposed and we should shut down for two weeks,” says Rempel. “Customers do have contact with us when they pick up at the farm or the farmers markets so we’ll be pre-packaging more produce than we usually do and sanitizing things at regular intervals, and between every customer we’ll be washing hands and sanitizing things they’ve touched if need be, just a lot of the things that regular grocery stores now are doing. It will add some time to our process for sure. We’ll work out the exact protocols closer to selling time.”

Wieler says her operation is smaller and even though she has a small amount of seasonal staff, they should be able to maintain social distancing pretty well. They will also conduct business a little differently than usual later this year when they open up their vegetable stand.

“What I have is essentially a two-acre garden and every row is a minimum of four feet apart,” explains Wieler. “We’re outdoors and we are definitely working more than six feet apart, if not 60 feet apart. When it’s time, I’ve decided I might put some fencing around my stand so you can enter at one side and exit at another. I’ll provide hand sanitizer at the beginning and end of the line. And I’ll pre-portion a lot of the products people will normally just grab, like peas or beans, just so there’s less contact. Not everyone will like that. Some people like to pick their own produce.”

Both farms now have all of their seeds planted and sprouted, with a few exceptions. Natural Collective explains that they usually wait a bit longer to plant brassica vegetables—such as kale, cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage.

“We hold off on all the brassica vegetables because we find the flea beetles eat them when we plant them too early,” says Rempel. “Once the canola is up everywhere else, the flea beetles migrate toward the canola fields, so then we don’t have any pest issues… We do use a couple of bio-insecticides, but other than that we just use insect netting and other cultural practices.”

Rempel also recommends using good compost while holding off on various fertilizers. “We do use lots of compost. We got a mushroom compost this year, it was really nice stuff, really hot,” he says. “We use pelleted turkey manure, especially for heavy feeders like corn and tomatoes, but that’s about it for fertilizers. We try to incorporate as much organic material back into the soil as we can.”

For Niverville Homegrown, Wieler is hopeful for the right amount of moisture this year. She doesn’t have an irrigation system and relies on garden hoses to reach her vegetables if they really need it, which is a lot of work. She says the soil is moist right now and the weather is notoriously a contentious issue for farmers.

“It’s always too much rain or not enough rain, no matter what, but I’m not like that,” laughs Wieler. “Heat and moisture is good, but if God takes his turn with watering this year, I’ll be a very happy farmer.”

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