COVID-19 anxiety hits Manitoba U-pick berry farms, St. Norbert Farmers’ Market

By | May 23, 2020

Local producers in Manitoba are worried about the impact COVID-19 will have on their businesses and the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market has already been hit by a significant downturn.

This week, executive director Marilyn Firth had a blunt message for the public: 

“We simply can’t survive without you.”

She posted that on Facebook after extremely disappointing attendance on May 16 — opening day for the 2020 outdoor season for the south Winnipeg market.

“We completely understand there’s lot of reasons why numbers were low and could not possibly be as high as a normal Saturday [before COVID-19]. But they were so disappointingly low that it’s actually a little heartbreaking, to be honest,” she said, adding “some hundreds” came out.

Typically, the market would be jam-packed, seeing thousands through the day. Opening day alone would usually draw close to 10,000, Firth said.

The St. Norbert Farmers’ Market supports more than 200 local producers. ‘They really need folks to come out and buy local,’ says executive director Marilyn Firth. (St. Norbert Farmers’ Market)

This year, COVID-19 has resulted in restrictions being set up to reduce the number of people on the site and ensure safe distancing protocols are in place.

The entire site, which was previously accessible from all sides, is now fenced off with only a single entrance, and the market hours have been reduced to 9 a.m. until 1 p.m.

But even with those measures, and an expected decrease in attendance, the May 16 turnout was far less than what Firth anticipated.

“We appreciate those people that did come out but we really need to see more numbers,” she said. “If we can’t keep the market vibrant and strong through this, we may not survive.”

The market supports more than 200 Manitoba producers.

“They really need folks to come out and buy local,” Firth said. 

“You see lineups happening around big multinational stores, and we really need to have that kind of thing happening for the market as well. We anticipate people will slowly start to come back, but we just really want to encourage people to do that.”

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Angie Cormier, executive director of the Prairie Fruit Growers Association, which represents about 70 U-pick farms in Manitoba, says there is worry in that industry as well.

“Everybody is excited for the season to begin, but also maybe there’s a little bit of anxiety in how the changes everyone is making on their farm will be received by customers,” she said.

Handwash and sanitizations stations will need to be set up and limits put in place for how many people can be on a site at one time. Guidelines expected of customers and growers are listed on the Prairie Fruit Growers Association’s website.

Cormier, who runs Cormier’s Berry Patch near La Salle, just south of Winnipeg, said the association is also looking at setting up an appointment system online, where people can book a time slot to go pick, rather than just dropping in.

“Normally, there are some of us farms that are very busy those first two weeks of picking, where we get lots of people. We do have to turn people away,” she said, adding it will be more common to turn people away with the limits in place.

“We’re just hoping that consumers are patient as farmers work through these changes. This is new for all of us growers, it’s new for consumers, so we’re hoping that we can all work together to figure it out.”

The picking season starts about the third week of June, when haskap berries are ready.

Strawberries and saskatoon berries follow about 10 days later with raspberries and sour cherries around the middle of July.

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