It’s September, and we are entering a new transition period with not only the colder temperatures and changing leaves of Autumn, but another step forward into the cautious re-opening of our province. Some have returned to work while many (such as the OFT staff) remain working remotely, but we are all waiting to see what the Autumn will bring. Among many things, you may be concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on the food system. Will Autumn bring another state of emergency leading to empty grocery shelves and halts in our food supply chain due to businesses closing? We cannot know for sure what Autumn will bring but at times of much uncertainty it can be helpful to take a moment to reflect. So, let us reflect on the impact of COVID-19 on the Ontario food system, particularly on our farmers, this summer.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns of food shortages rose as reports of labour shortages on farms, empty grocery store shelves, and the closure of many restaurants, retailers, farmers’ markets and food processing plants emerged. The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic led some farmers to consider not planting crops at all or switching to growing crops that require less money and labour [1]. The implications of this being a reduction in the diversity of what farms in Ontario produce and a shortage in some foods we are accustomed to getting every year. There were rising concerns of farmers going bankrupt and then leaving the agricultural sector, leading to a contraction of agricultural land and a shrinking of local food production as the land may be sold for uses other than agriculture [2]. Many farms with Spring crops were only able to harvest parts of their fields due to labour shortages, increasing concerns over the possibility of fields lying fallow and crops rotting [1]. Food supply chain disruptions led to some products being temporarily dumped until resources could be reallocated, further fueling worries of impending food shortages [2]. Panic buying led to empty grocery store shelves, leading to temporary shortages and inflated prices of high demand products [3].

However, months into the pandemic, Ontario’s food industry has proven to be resilient as bottlenecks in the food supply chain have been addressed and grocery store shelves have been consistently restocked. Most impressive of all are our farmers who responded to issues brought on by the pandemic swiftly and innovatively. Despite the initial worries, Ontario farmers have continued to harvest and support our communities.

To support local food production and limit trips to the grocery store many consumers decided to go straight to the source. The demand for Community Shared Agriculture programs (CSAs), which connect farmers and consumers, soared and many have reported waiting lists for next year that are longer than usual [4]. Other consumers opted to pick up fresh food directly from farms offering this service. Many farmers have switched to using online methods, such as social media and e-commerce, to engage and connect with consumers directly [3]. Many farmers’ markets have also moved online to connect consumers with the farmers they are used to interacting with at vendor stalls [5]. The COVID-19 pandemic has inadvertently provided farmers with an unexpected opportunity to expand their customer bases through new business ventures and it has allowed consumers to really learn where their food comes from.

Now looking to the future and what Autumn may bring, the changes we’ve seen during the summer in our food industry will likely continue to be the ‘new normal’ in the upcoming months. These changes will help support our local food industry and may even encourage growth in our agricultural sector and encourage farmers to diversify their range of food products based on consumer demand. One thing is certain, we know now more than ever how essential our local farmers are and how important it is to protect Ontario’s farmlands!

  1. Edminston, J. (2020, April 17). Canadian farmers warn they may ‘sit out the season’ unless government aid guaranteed. Financial Post.
  2. University of Guelph. (2020). Food from thought COVID-19 webinar series.
  3. Ivison, J. (2020, May 22). Canada avoided a COVID-19 food shortage, but the shockwaves aren’t over yet. National Post.
  4. Coppolino, A. (2020, June 13). Community shared agriculture a hot commodity as food security worries increase.
  5. Shuttleworth, J. (2020, April, 22). Farmers, marketplaces figuring out how to run farmers’ markets this year. Wellington Advertiser.