Standing by a row of flowering arugula at Hannah Brook Farm in Burnaby, I want to kneel down in the richly composted soil and weep.
This 2.5-acre farm, one of four urban plots owned by Paul Healey, grows the most delicious salad greens I have ever tasted. There is lemony sorrel, mustardy mizuna, nutty argula, tangy chervil, buttery mâche, tender red kale and hearty watercress – more than 40 varieties in total.
But only 5 per cent of the crops will get picked this spring. The rest will go to waste.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has created a surging demand for local produce, there is a large gap in the food-supply chain that is tripping up small farmers. A combination of increasingly tight safety regulations and the sheer enormity of pivoting to new distribution models in the middle of the growing season have made it impossible for many farmers to sell their vast surpluses.
Similar to dairy farmers who are dumping milk or pork farmers who are euthanizing pigs, many small produce farmers such as Mr. Healey have no other choice but to destroy their crops or let them rot.
Usually, Mr. Healey’s prized greens would be sold to top restaurants across British Columbia. But with his clients closed or limited to takeout, sales have been devastated.
Restaurants that usually order 80 pounds a week are now ordering 10. Hotels, which regularly account for 400 pounds a week, haven’t ordered any. His regular air shipment to restaurants in Tofino – 240-plus pounds a week – is kaput.
Even his sales at the Trout Lake Farmers Market have slowed to a trickle because, Mr. Healey says, people are rushing in and out after waiting in long lines and his stall isn’t centrally located.
A small portion of Mr. Healey’s gourmet salad mix – along with asparagus and potatoes and the crops from his other farms – has been diverted to direct consumer sales. And if there is any silver lining to this whole COVID-19 catastrophe it’s that consumers now have access to the cream of the small-farm crops usually reserved for restaurants.
I’ve been buying these gorgeous greens by the pound for $20 from North Vancouver’s Orto Artisan Pasta and through Legends Haul home delivery.
You can also find them in weekly harvest boxes from Burdock and Co. restaurant (which include vegetables from six to 10 local farms each week) and at a few small retail stores, including Famous Foods, the East End Food Co-op and Eternal Abundance.
But that’s not enough to divert an entire farm. Like many small farmers, Mr. Healey is not able sell to large grocery stores or wholesale purchasers because he doesn’t have the CanadaGAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification they demand.
What’s worse, he can’t even give his greens away to food banks because he can’t hire enough daily farm hands to pick them. Not even at $20 an hour, which he has been offering through a boosted ad on Kijiji classifieds. After five weeks, only one person responded – a UBC Farm student whose practicum has been cancelled.
“You would think that with the gardening stores being so busy, people would want to come out here and work. They could certainly learn a lot,” says Mr. Healey, who currently employs six farm hands, down from 12 this time last year.
So now all these beautiful greens that I’ve been sautéing for breakfast, throwing in smoothies and snacking on by the fistful are going to waste. After I left his farm last week, Mr. Healey hauled out his weed-whacker and destroyed 600 pounds to make way for 1,660 squash seedlings – which he had already purchased under contract.
“It’s really, really sad,” says Andrea Carlson, the chef-owner of Burdock and Co. and Harvest Community Foods, who has heard similar stories from other small farmers. Meanwhile, sales of her harvest boxes have skyrocketed to 400 a week – up from 40 every two weeks, pre-COVID.
There likely isn’t a restaurant owner in Vancouver who has supported small organic farms more than Ms. Carlson. But not even she was aware of this regulatory roadblock called GAP, which has become the bane of many small farmers.
CanadaGap is a food-safety program for companies that produce, handle and broker fruits and vegetables. Based on the internationally recognized HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) standards, the program provides rigorous guidelines for things such as packing containers, sorting, sanitization, washing stations and more. It requires a ton of paperwork and in-person audits of every single crop during harvest.
Certification isn’t required by restaurants, farmers markets and small retail stores if the produce is grown within the same province. But larger grocery stores and wholesale purchasers have made it mandatory.
“It’s not a bad thing,” says Marlene Myers of Myers Organic Farm in Aldergrove, which has been certified for four years. “But it’s a big thing for farms to wrap their heads around. It’s mind-boggling when you first look at the manual. You think, ‘Oh my god, I’ll never get through this. ‘ ”
Ms. Myers says some of the rules are excessive. “My daughter works in a hospital. She doesn’t have to sanitize her gloves after she puts them on, but we do – and we’re working in dirt.”
Although onerous and perhaps overzealous, GAP regulations aren’t likely to go away or loosen up, especially now when safety protocols are top of mind for everyone.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has also made it more difficult for farmers to meet the requirements.
“We can’t get enough gloves, masks or sanitizers,” says Naty King, the owner of Hazelmere Organic Farm. Her farm is not GAP-certified, but she helps other farms through the process so she can sell their vegetables to Whole Foods.
So even though Mr. Healey says he would like to pursue GAP certification, it might not be that easy.
Ms. King says she hopes the grocery stores will be a little more lenient this year.
“Or else they won’t be any small-farm produce on shelves at all.”
And that would really be a crying shame.
Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters.