Central Alberta farmer adapts to cope with pandemic

Eagle Creek Farms ran out of seed potatoes for online market because of demand

Demand has been so high from pandemic-inspired home gardeners for online seed potatoes, that Eagle Creek Farms had to shut down its online market.

John Mills, who sells 40 varieties of organic potatoes, simply has none left to sell.

“The demand for those by home gardeners was just through the roof,” said Mills, who is the fourth generation to farm the property a few kilometres west of Bowden.

“I think the only time I’ve run out of potatoes was the year that we had, I think, 80 per cent crop loss from hail. So that year (2014), I was a little short on potatoes.”

There has been a similar demand for other stored organically grown vegetables, such as parsnips, carrots and beets — many of which go to Calgary farmers’ markets.

The pandemic has been behind the booming interest, as home gardeners, perhaps leery of grocery stores because of the risk of COVID-19 contact, are inspired to grow their own food.

Mills is expecting the market for fresh vegetables to be just as hot later this year, by people embracing open-air markets and U-pick options. In anticipation, he has already turned more land over to vegetable production.

“There’s been a huge increase in demand, both the home delivery and pick-up options, as people look for ways of getting away from the crowds in the grocery store.”

The additional vegetable revenue will be welcomed; he is doubtful because of health restrictions on gatherings, that he will be able to open his sunflower and corn mazes, which drew throngs to the farm each summer.

“I think there is a good chance we’re not going to be able open it at all,” he said.

“With limits of 15 people, I don’t see how I can run a tourism operation bringing in thousands of people on a weekend to a farm.

“That part of our operation is probably going to be shut down for the season.”

The mazes and U-pick flower and vegetable gardens represent about 25 per cent of his income, which makes offsetting revenue from vegetables and seeds all the more significant.

He has about two weeks before he has to make a decision on whether to plant the corn maze. The sunflower maze is created through five separate plantings beginning in mid-May and running to the end of June, so he has a little more leeway there.

If it appears public gathering restrictions might be loosened, or lifted by the fall, he may plant some sunflowers in June with hopes they fill in for September.

“So maybe I can get something out of the last two weeks of the season, perhaps. But I’m not overly optimistic.”

If the mazes don’t happen, Mills said he will miss the human connections and wonders who long that will last.

“What are going to be the long-term ramifications for tourism operations until we get a vaccine? This might be the new normal for the next three years.

“Which is unfortunate, because for a lot of farms like us, it really was a saving grace in diversifying our income and finding other income sources.

“Now, we (could be) just back to where we were before, I guess.”



pcowley@reddeeradvocate.com

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