Is the bloom off natural produce? Quebec farmers involved as subscriptions plummet

France Marcoux was expecting to see more steady growth this summer in the number of families in the Beauport, Que., area subscribing to her organic produce baskets.

After all, business had been increasing all through the pandemic, as people with plenty of time for cooking sought quality food.

The Quebec government had encouraged people to support local businesses in their time of need, so the owner of the Potager France Marcoux increased production and waited for people to sign up.

She was soon dismayed to see subscriptions instead plummet by 35 to 40 per cent this spring.

There is no clear reason for it, but Marcoux has a theory.

“I feel that after two years of the pandemic, people have a great desire to travel. Committing themselves to a basket all summer, they’re not sure,” Marcoux said.

An industry group, the Coopérative pour l’agriculture de proximité écologique (CAPE) is calling on consumers to sign up for organic baskets and support local producers. Farmers had to plan for this year’s crops last fall and hire staff accordingly.

“Otherwise, sometimes the workforce is too big for the work that needs to be done,” said Émilie Viau-Drouin, president of the CAPE.

Many producers have increased their production capacity by 50 per cent since 2020, but demand hasn’t followed. The market gardeners of the Réseau des fermiers de famille (RFF) are experiencing a 10 to 12 per cent drop in subscriptions compared to 2021.

And yet, farm baskets are one of the few commodities whose price has not skyrocketed due to inflation, since farmers set their prices last winter.

According to Viau-Drouin, the average price of a basket for a family of four is set in advance at about $35 a week and typically includes around 10 different products. If costs rise, it is the farmer who takes the hit.

And those costs are rising. On top of a drop in income, farmers must face increases in employees’ salaries, the cost of fuel and the price of most supplies.

Marcoux is reminding clients who may be wary of commitment that it is always possible to temporarily suspend their subscription for a few weeks, rather than cancel it altogether.

“We’re still absorbing a large part,” France Marcoux said. “We could increase our prices, but if we want people to eat local, we can’t be abusive with prices.”

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