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Marketing Matters: When challenges become opportunities

January 18, 2021  By The Regional Municipality of York

“Pivot” may be the most fashionable word of 2020, and it certainly applies to agri-food businesses that have rapidly adjusted to changing market conditions. Increased safety measures, new online shopping, touchless pickup services and virtual farm tours were among some of the earliest developments that farms introduced to minimize business disruptions. Growers based in York Region, Ont. shared some insights into which new processes have been the most successful, and which are expected to continue into the long term.

Separating operations
To maintain physical distancing and improve traffic flow, several businesses have created separate shopping experiences to service different customer segments.

Reesor’s has a farm, shop, commercial kitchen, and a retail store in Markham, Ont. and the town of Whitchurch-Stouffville. Within the first weeks of closures in March, they quickly introduced online shopping and decided to take this a step further after its launch. The Reesor’s team identified that it would be safer for staff and customers if online orders were packed and picked up in a location separate from their physical stores. This would enhance safe physical distancing and minimize any inconvenience for in-store customers. The team accelerated their commitment to the digital market segment by investing in a new off-site warehouse, where online orders are packed and prepared for pickup.


Top Tomato Foods are growers, packers and shippers that sell wholesale at the Ontario Food Terminal as well as direct to consumers from their popular 19th Avenue Market in Markham. This summer, the business identified that an easy way to minimize lineups and bottlenecks in the farm market would be to separate large order customers. Now those interested in volume purchases are directed into a separate area of the market.

A more significant investment by Top Tomato this year was their new online grocery store, specifically developed to support their staff of over 140 employees. This operation has its own internal website for online ordering and includes a wide selection of grocery items including international specialties and even cleaning supplies. This was started to support foreign seasonal workers while on mandatory isolation and has expanded through the year following positive feedback from staff.

Improving the U-PICK experience
Consumer pick-your-own experiences offer meaningful connections to agriculture as well as popular family bonding opportunities. However, there are often massive crowds, especially on weekends during peak berry, apple and pumpkin seasons. York Region producers displayed innovation to meet these challenges head on.

Having successfully launched their online shop, Reesor’s extended the web service to support their pick-your-own farm operations. An online reservation system was established before strawberry season and the booking service enabled guests to reserve one-hour picking slots before driving to the farm. With visitors evenly spread through each day, the pick-your-own experience was more relaxed than usual, despite COVID restrictions.

Robintide Farms, just north of Vaughan, Ont., were able to successfully manage crowds through the 2020 berry season without requiring online reservations, but they did implement new processes on site to keep visitors and staff safe. One of the procedures they found particularly useful was having multiple check-in zones for visitors to be reminded of rules as they moved through the farm. Each checkpoint was staffed to maintain distancing and provide hand sanitization. Overall, creating a safer environment enabled the business to cross promote additional products and services, and resulted in a more relaxed environment for staff and visitors.

To support businesses during COVID-19, York Region established an industry-led agri-food sub-group comprised of members of the Agriculture and Agri-Food Advisory Committee and other experts. The group helped enable mobile COVID-19 testing at farms, developed a business recovery webinar series and created a Personal Protective Equipment supplier directory for agri-food businesses.

To learn more about how York Region supports its agriculture and agri-food sector, visit

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