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Discover: Pandemic shortages saw increased local food demand; research looks at how farmers cope

‘We want to look at how these businesses are pivoting within the pandemic environment, what’s working for them, and what’s not’
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Éric Blondin and Peggy Baillie are the owners of Three Forks Farms in Warren. (Supplied)

To expand and advance human knowledge of the world. That is the endeavour of foundational and academic research – also known as basic research. That need to understand the world around us, to answer our deepest questions about the nature of the universe. 

But if you have ever tried to search a solution to a specific problem you’re experiencing, and have found yourself overloaded with information pertaining to the nature of the universe – but not necessarily to the nature of your problem – then you have just experienced the need for applied research: an everyday, practical approach to a very specific problem. 

If you have been awake for even a portion of 2020, then you know there are some problems to be solved. 

Traditionally, once there is a specific issue, the parties experiencing the problem will try to muddle their way through. Some choose intuition, the go-with-your-gut approach; others will look to best practices, but in some cases the best practices in place are out of date, and even sometimes based on an issue that no longer factors into the discussion. Even copying others becomes an option, but not a sustainable one. 

And what if your problem comes out of nowhere, with no precedent, no warning, and global effects? That is the problem the pandemic placed on the food supply in North America, a treasured and integral resource that relies on a complex web of commercial and consumer customers, and their often opposing needs. And that is a problem for applied research to solve.

In applied research, the ability to clarify the research focus is paramount. Of course, that is the case in basic research as well, but the nature, time frame and often lack of experiments within applied research makes the specificity of the nature of the problem integral to the success of the project. 

In addition to the myriad of other issues facing the human race, food shortages are an ongoing problem, and one immediately exposed when the pandemic hit. It turns out that empty groceries store shelves can be quite chilling to see. 

The articles began, describing the milk poured down the drain because it was not required in its usual commercial aspects – no restaurants, no schools. Restaurants also tend to buy larger quantities of cuts of meat, like beef, and the removal of that demand ended with the cull of the cattle – now too old to butcher and sell, and too expensive to feed

Add to this the problem of getting the food to the consumers: meat processing plants closed by laws or outbreaks, not to mention packaging issues: flour and yeast became difficult to purchase not because of a shortage of the product, but by the labelling and packaging needed to ship and sell it.

That’s a complicated problem. 

In Northern Ontario, with its vast expanse and already logistically-complex supply and demand, the people began to call out for local food. Well, not just call out, but scream. 

Demand for local food triples. Immediately, farmers are inundated with requests, all while they are trying to move their businesses online so that they can continue to stay open. With no knowledge as to what they will be able to sell even if they can open, or what will be in demand, agricultural producers are left with more requests than ever, and an incredibly hostile world to try to fulfill them in. 

But thankfully, there are community organisations in place, and a little thing called applied research. 

Robin Craig, director of Research and Innovation Boreal, the new centre for applied research at College Boreal in Sudbury, saw the beginnings of these requests, and then chanced upon a Facebook group created recently (in addition to others) in search of a way to provide a directory of producers and growers in Northern Ontario – a one stop guide for consumers to find the diverse number of locally produced goods found here. 

Having recently met with agricultural partners like the Rural Agri-Innovation Network (RAIN), ReThink Green, and the Greater Sudbury Food Policy Council (GSFPC), she wondered about how they were handling the changes in demand. 

“I was thinking, well, I wonder whether or not within their organisation, are they seeing the same demand,” says Craig. “We want to look at how these businesses are pivoting within the pandemic environment, what’s working for them, and what’s not.”

And it will not only aid the applied research partnerships; Craig notes that applied research, when conducted by a post-secondary institution, can mean that anything discovered during the project can be adapted into classroom learning for the future. 

“There could be case planning for different types of crises,” she said. “You might have a drought, you might have too much rain, or, you might have a pandemic.”

She drafted a grant proposal which was recently funded and approved, and now, in with several organisations including RAIN, ReThink Green, GSFPC, the Northern Ontario Farm Innovation Alliance (NOFIA), the University of Guelph, as well as College Boreal, will spend the next year working on Understanding the Impact and Mitigation Strategies of the COVID-19 Outbreak on the Agricultural Sector in Northeastern Ontario. 

The year-long deadline is another aspect of applied research that differs from basic or academic research. While those projects take as long as required to find the information, applied research has to respond to a set of circumstances, and give answers in real time.

The grant proposal lays out the objective of the project, and its impetus, as well as the partners and their respective benefits – which aspects of the results will aid them in their goals i.e. targeted support and resources, enhanced marketing responses, policy decisions, new consumer and commercial markets, and even enhanced programming at educational institutions. 

The focus then becomes the “how.”

With most applied research, the first step is, well, more research. That is, examining what data has already been catalogued, and how can a new study build from that. For Craig and the partners in this study, that means devouring the information contained in the surveys and interviews that have been compiled by other organisations, as well as the partners’ databases, and those publicly available. 

Now for the new information – how do you get it?

You design a research method, and in the case of this local food project, that means what is known as a mixed method research design: a combination of quantitative questions (focused on tangible and measurable data, such as financials and labour numbers) and qualitative questions (those designed to elicit data that is not easily quantifiable, like habits, attitudes, needs and challenges). 

Even in the best of circumstances, this is difficult. Trying to wrangle so many people in such a short amount of time will be akin to “herding cats.” But add to that the removal of the chance to travel, remote work only, and already busy farmers that now face triple the demand? 

This is where Craig notes the advantage that local partners offer – their existing contacts. In addition to their help, a telephone line that allows those who wish to take the study to simply call rather than have to struggle with inconsistent internet, as well as an openness to working with the schedules of producers and growers – “we’ll be doing a lot of this stuff on rainy days,” Craig said with a laugh – will ensure that this applied research study is as successful as it endeavours to be. 

That success, hopefully, looks very good for anyone in Northeastern Ontario looking for local food, or growing it. It will also be a chance to find out about the emerging agricultural industries here you may not know about. 

While the idea of a farm often conjures vegetables, fruits and berries, Northern Ontario is more likely home to those with livestock and dairy holdings. And what you might not know yet is not only is there an industry of maple syrup production happening on the northern doorstep, but aquaculture, and native species horticulture as well. 

And because of applied research, by this time next year, there will likely be an interactive map of where to find each and every one of these growers and producers, in addition to their website, their business operating information like opening hours, their offerings, and how consumers can connect with them. 

Then a best practice guide, designed for layperson use, will be shared with the Northeastern Ontario agri-businesses, and a summary for the government. 

And in one year, government, education, food supply, agriculture and the average consumer all have a solution to a problem, and one that hopefully won’t befall this world again.  

Jenny Lamothe is a freelance writer, proof-reader and editor in Greater Sudbury. Contact her through her website, JennyLamothe.com.




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