The COVID-19 pandemic fuelled rapid growth for the Cow-op, the Cowichan Valley’s online co-operative farmers’ market. Nearly a year after the boom, the market has seen sustained growth and continues to add new products, new customers and new options for pick up and delivery, says market manager Derrick Pawlowski.
The Cow-op sells farm goods, prepared foods and other local products on an online marketplace. Members of the co-op post goods for sale weekly, and customers can buy for pickup or delivery on Thursdays. When the pandemc struck, the market filled a demand for people wanting to support local while staying out of grocery stores.
With spring around the corner, Pawlowski says he’s ready for another big year. “We’re in a really good place, knowing that the growing season is coming,” he says.
Expanded frozen meals and prepared foods
Winters are the slow season for the Cow-op. Still, in December the market was filling as many orders as the initial pandemic boom, Pawlowski says.
More local restaurants, caterers and small businesses are turning to the Cow-op to sell fresh and frozen prepared foods. For the businesses it’s a new way to reach customers, at a time when there’s much less demand for in-person dining. And customers are seizing the opportunity to access meals and treats they can prepare easily at home.
For example, the Farm Table Inn, a farm-to-table restaurant near Lake Cowichan, recently began selling prepared foods on the Cow-op website. Offerings include frozen lasagnas, fresh soups, desserts and more. Those new products have generated a lot of interest, Pawlowski says.
The businesses selling prepared foods are increasingly buying their ingredients from Cow-op farmers, too, says Pawlowski. “Our goal is to support the economic viability of local agriculture, so that’s awesome. “It’s cool to see a bit more of a circular economy growing in the sense of those connections strengthening.”
The Cow-op is also strengthening local food networks through a monthly Zoom meeting connecting farmers with food businesses and wholesale buyers, Pawlowski says. “They can have real-time conversations about what the demand is. Because a lot of these businesses actually would love to source more stuff locally, but they just can’t find it. They can’t find that amount of product.”
So the businesses can tell farmers what exactly they would buy if it were available, and the farmers can farm with more certainty they’ll have a buyer.
Pawlowski says there’s an opportunity to keep growing the wholesale side of the marketplace. The food businesses involved “are all loving the idea of being able to order their stuff at a wholesale rate, just through Cow-op, rather than connecting with dozens of farmers on their cell phone.”
Expanded delivery and pick up options
At the onset of the pandemic, the Cow-op shifted from a pick-up only model to offering full delivery service throughout the Cowichan Valley Regional District.
Now, the Cow-op is expanding both delivery and pick-up options. Delivery is now available in Nanaimo in addition to the Cowichan region. And there’s the option to save on delivery fees and pick up instead at locations in Victoria, Cobble Hill, Duncan and Sahtlam.
Coming next is likely a pickup at the HUB at Cowichan Station, Pawlowski says. The Cow-op is also eyeing delivery for Victoria and new pickup locations for Nanaimo, Ladysmith and Maple Bay.
Pawlowski says he’s excited about growing connections between other parts of Vancouver Island, including Victoria, Saanich, Nanaimo and Tofino. In the future, it could be that regions work more collaboratively to fill gaps in production, supporting a stronger local food ecosystem.
In a few years, Pawlowski foresees the Cow-op “being a very strong local food hub and co-operative that is continuously adapting in response to our farmers’ needs.”
What that looks like remains to be seen. Few would have guessed how far the Cow-op would come over the past year, through all its challenges.
This Food For Thought article is made possible in part with funding from the Real Estate Foundation of BC and Journalists for Human Rights/RBC. Their support does not imply endorsement of or influence over the content produced.