Are Okanagan farmers bypassing a vital marketing tool?

Farming social media

Many of the small changes local farmers started to make during the Pandemic might need to continue if they want to connect with customers.

UBC Okanagan researchers Dr. John Janmaat and Dr. Joanne Taylor, in conjunction with a fellow researcher in China, compared how producers communicate with people looking for fresh, locally-grown produce.

What they found was that farmers in China’s Shaanxi province appear to use technology and social media more than those in the Okanagan and Cariboo regions of BC.

“Small agricultural producers in China are able to take advantage of online marketing to connect with consumers and to move their products,” says Janmaat, a Professor of Economics in the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences. “When the pandemic happened here, Canadians were pivoting very quickly to try and figure out, ‘Okay, what can we do now that we’re shutting down farmers’ markets, and going to visit a farm is probably not something we want to do?’ The idea of moving online was pursued, but now that these pandemic protections have come off, it’s kind of disappearing again.”

Janmaat points out that one of the key differences might be that Chinese populations are more accustomed to shopping for fresh produce daily, while Canadians tend to do so less frequently.

“It just stood out that would this be a tool that would be something that would be of value for our farmers here that maybe deserves further exploration?”

In BC, there is no centrally supported system of online, local produce marketing. Janmaat says it might be something that the provincial government could support to help local farmers reach customers.

“If it's something that private companies can’t seem to make a fly of, is it perhaps a role for the government to help set up these platforms? So that they are in place and farmers can use them even if there isn’t a private internet provider that can carve off enough profit to justify their doing it?” Janmaat wonders.

The research was a collaboration between Lan Mu, a visiting scholar from Shaanxi Normal University, and UBCO doctoral student Lauren Arnold. It was Janmaat and Lan who struck upon the idea of comparing how Canadian and Chinese farmers are confronting climate change. They realized they were doing similar research and wanted to bring their worlds together.

“It’s a simple idea, one that farmers have been using for time immemorial,” says Taylor, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Economics, Philosophy and Political Science at UBCO. “When farmers encounter a problem, they walk down the road to ask their neighbours how they’re coping.”

She says farmers from all different levels of productivity are trying to survive and technology is going to play a bigger role in the way they cope with the changing climate and other challenges.

"For example, technology is certainly going to play a much bigger role in the way that we supply water, and in the way that we use water.

“That's just one example, but technology is certainly a very, very important tool that we’re going to have to use and implement in the future, and there is a lot of research which has been going on, which will continue to go on into the future,” adds Taylor.

One of the challenges in Canada is our smaller population. Janmaat says even though organic grocery delivery service SPUD has pulled out of Kelowna, he sees an opportunity for farm boxes.

“What these farm boxes do well is kind of coordinate a group of producers who produce different stuff to fill a box and then deliver it. Maybe participating in those sorts of things is a better way to connect with customers than just hoping that the customer is going to come to your farm for two things and then go to another farm for three things.”

The research was recently published in the journal Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change.

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