Organic farmers face a complex e-commerce sector












arrowOur Little Farm CSA box. [Photo © Jordanna Tennebaum]

By Jordanna Tennebaum

Canadian organic farmers are making significant inroads in the mainstream food retail market. According to the most recent census of agriculture conducted by Statistics Canada in 2011, more than 3,000 farms reported having certified organic products for sale. On a smaller scale, there are more than 700 certified organic operators in Ontario alone, offering up sizable shares of greenhouse vegetables, maple goods and flavourful spices.

Much like diverse crops offered by Canadian organic farmers are multifaceted distribution channels. Due in large part to shifting consumer demands, food producers are partnering with a mix of grocery stores, natural food stores and farmers’ markets. While these are some of the more visible displays of organic cultivation, Canadian farmers are also developing sophisticated e-commerce platforms enabling online shopping.

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Digital sales

Quebec’s Bryson Farms is one of many certified organic growers merging fresh produce with digital sales tools. For over 15 years, the 140-acre farm has been serving the Ottawa-Gatineau region with its seasonal harvests. Since 2010, owners Terry Stewart and Stuart Collins have offered online payment options for both residential and commercial customers, allowing shoppers to pick and choose from colourful baskets full of heirloom tomatoes, fingerling potatoes and golden beets.

Bryson Farms’ social media and administrative assistant Julielee Stitt finds that digital sales tools work in tandem with face-to-face transactions.

“The online market is an extension of the farmers’ market. We encourage everyone to come out, but that’s not always an option,” says Stitt.

E-commerce growth

Stitt’s high regard for online purchasing is reflective of rising e-commerce levels in Canada. Between 2010 and 2013, technology and market analysis experts at Forrester Research reported that digital sales rose from $15.3 billion to $20.6 billion. It is expected that this figure will jump to $39.9 billion by 2019, a product of an anticipated 12.3 per cent annual growth rate.

Gatineau’s Our Little Farm owner and operator Jim Thompson is trying to align his website’s e-commerce features with an increasingly tech-savvy consumer base. Since 2014, Thompson has allowed customers to register for a weekly vegetable delivery service (more formally known as the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program), through an online system called Wufoo that tracks and creates sign-up forms.

“People like having the power to manage their accounts online. They can change drop-off locations or drop-off dates … to not have a 24-hour delay is a big deal,” says Thompson. Prior to linking the Our Little Farm website with Wufoo, wait times sometimes exceeded this 24-hour period as clients mailed in paper forms and cheques.

While Thompson is enthusiastic about Wufoo as a way to improve his delivery network, key players in the organic sector are averse to the merger of technology with agrarian business, giving way to a rather complex picture. With over 80 CSA distributors in Quebec, diverse voices have expressed numerous viewpoints, some of which conflict with Thompson’s outlook and operations.

Mixed opinions

Agricultural counselor Mathieu Roy witnesses clashing opinions on a relatively consistent basis. Roy is a senior lecturer with Équiterre, the non-governmental agency that manages Quebec’s CSA operations. Roy recognizes that alongside early adopters of digital platforms such as Farmigo, a simulated online farmers’ market connecting consumers with local farms, are numerous organic farmers who see little if any value in e-commerce.

“Online payment fits certain kinds of farmers, especially the ones that are younger. But for many, it doesn’t fit, they don’t want to be on the web,” says Roy.

For some, hesitation comes down to a two or three per cent transaction fee, which is usually levied via PayPal or credit card e-transfers.

Despite the financial trade offs, e-commerce uptake among farmers is considerably high. According to Roy, amongst approximately 100 organic farmers in Quebec, 40 per cent are integrating e-commerce in varying forms, such as e-transfers enabled by banking partnerships with Desjardins.

Improved accessibility

Merely having the option to peruse or purchase produce online may further accessibility to organic goods for contemporary shoppers, especially where time and distance factors are concerned.

For York University MBA student Jacqueline Smolyar, weekly trips to farmers’ markets or organic grocers are usually incompatible with her packed schedule. Instead of foregoing her desire to consume a mostly organic diet, Smolyar made an online CSA purchase with Govardhana Farms. Throughout an 18-week period, Smolyar picked up different assortments of produce from a nearby drop-off location in the GTA.

“The system was pretty easy. I signed up with my PayPal account and was able to enjoy the vegetable boxes without having to do much shopping-wise,” says Smolyar. Although Smolyar’s satisfaction reflects a quick, simple and dependable e-commerce arrangement, confidence in online tools extends far beyond convenience. By making online purchases with nearby farms, shoppers reduce their ecological footprint, swapping car rides and paper with full service websites.

Agri-Food Canada research scientist Dr. Edward Gregorich predicts that by doing away with the need to physically take orders, parties on both ends of the transaction will benefit.

“This cuts out the middle man. People like that because it’s better for the environment. It’s likely sourced close by and there is less distance involved, less paperwork and less hassle,” says Gregorich.

Given these pro-e-commerce incentives, organic farmers may advance the current use of digital routes as ways to market and sell produce. No matter the particular e-payment structure selected, consumerist considerations, technological interests and ecological factors will continue to contribute to a rather complex patchwork of online and offline vendors.

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