By Billy Mitchell, NFU FSMA Training Coordinator

Just five short months ago, National Farmers Union (NFU) members attending the organization’s annual convention breezed through Forsyth Park Farmers Market in Savannah, Georgia. Today, the scene would be unthinkable: customers hugging farmers, friends standing shoulder to shoulder, shoppers testing produce ripeness with their bare hands, families generously sharing food with one another, and not a mask in sight. Just two weeks later, the city of Savannah suspended all activities in Forsyth Park – no hugs, no friends, and no farmers market.

But thanks to some “good advocates and good relationships with our city officials,” according to market manager Ashleigh Clark, the market was ultimately able to adapt and stay open, providing a safe place for farmers to sell their goods and for community members to buy fresh, healthy food.

Markets have had little time to react kindly, creatively, and quickly to the pandemic, often with adverse consequences for producers and consumers alike. For many communities, a farmers market may be its only or most trusted source for farm fresh products. The loss of that, even temporarily, can be disastrous. “Folks rely on us all 52 weeks a year for food,” said Clark, “so it was vital that we stayed open.” Karen Wingard, who coordinates the Elk River Farmers Market in Elk River, Minnesota, shared the same sense of commitment to the community. “Many have grown to depend on the market in Elk River, and we did not want to let them down.”

During the pandemic, the role of markets have become even more pronounced. Markets offer an alternative to crowded, enclosed grocery stores with outdoor stalls and plenty of space for social distancing – both critical factors in preventing the spread of covid-19. Additionally, while grocery stores have been picked over and sold out of staples, markets have offered abundance. The Rainier Beach Urban Farm & Wetlands Farm Stand in Seattle, for instance, is “selling produce” along with “Washington grown grains, dried beans, dairy products, honey and cut flowers,” said Seattle Tilth Market Programs Manager Kerri Cacciata.

A shopper at the Farm Truck 912.

The availability of food is one thing, but whether customers can afford it is another thing entirely. For Cacciata, “access is the main lens we organized this farm stand through . . .we are able to offer 50% discount if SNAP/EBT is used, we accept Seattle’s Fresh Bucks and can discount produce up to $20 if that helps to stretch a grocery budget.” Food access motivates Clark as well. In addition to their permanent location, Forsyth Farmers Market runs a mobile markets market, Farm Truck 912, which brings produce directly to Savannah neighborhoods. The service, which also Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, was improving food access long before the pandemic, but it has ramped up significantly in the last several months. “It basically doubled business on the truck overnight,” said Clark.

Farmers markets are just as important to farmers as they are to consumers. For many producers, especially those who are socially disadvantaged or new to the profession, farmers markets provide a large portion of their income. This became particularly true when restaurants, schools, and other local markets suddenly closed in March. “The loss of restaurant business was a huge hit,” for vendors, according to Clark. As other sales channels disappear overnight, markets have been a lifeline, keeping farms afloat and sales and connection constant.

But farmers markets aren’t just a place to exchange food for money – they’re the center of many communities, where residents come together for friendship and camaraderie. During the pandemic, with church services being held online and the Waffle House closed, markets may be farmers’ only social interaction outside of family and crew members. “Holding the market during the pandemic to connect our local producers and farmers to the community was crucial both for financial and mental stability in our community,” Wingard said. For some customers, Cacciata noted, the market is also a good reason to get out of their houses, breathe in some fresh air, and generate some Vitamin D. “The opportunity to . . . enjoy the outdoors is a very valuable resource.”

Rainier Beach Urban Farm & Wetlands Farm Stand

Given the immeasurable value markets offer to their communities, market managers have committed to keep them open and as safe as possible. DIY hand-washing stations, plexiglass barriers, occupancy limits, chalk arrows directing traffic, and lots of signage help keep the peace as people move from stand to stand. Elk River, like most, put in “new guidelines for social distancing and sanitization practices.” To Wingard’s surprise, “the comments from vendors and shoppers are that the new layout is preferred over the original one.”

But the changes haven’t been without their challenges. Complying with public health measures has required both a substantial investment in gloves, hand and surface sanitizers as well as precious time to navigate ever-shifting rules and regulations. Forsyth has “managed to do it,” said Clark, “but it’s been very stressful.” And, of course, there’s the issue of face masks. Clark observed that while “it’s impossible for us to force everyone in a public park to wear a mask. . .a majority of our regular shoppers are very good about it.” Wingard thinks that high compliance may largely because customers are “thankful to have this as a little bit of ‘normal summer.’”

Farmers have been just as willing to adjust. “Of all the groups of people out there, I think farmers know better than anyone that there is nothing normal about any season and adaptation is the key,” Wingard said. Clark felt similarly, remarking that “those that did not have websites got websites and apps up and running in a week or so.” Vendors also worked cooperatively “to create delivery systems and pop-up markets where people can pre-order . . . and purchase in a safe manner that directly supports out local food systems.”

Farmers markets’ efforts to continue operating have not gone unnoticed.  “Citizens of Savannah really rallied,” said Clark. “They came out to the market and our mobile market in some of the highest spring numbers we’ve ever seen.” Cacciata estimated that the farm stand has been “welcoming between 125-175 households per week to our Thursday farm stand.” And at Elk River, support “has translated into great sales this season so far.”

Business opportunities for farmers. Good food and safe shopping conditions for customers. A sense of community for all. Farmers markets continue to provide these essential things, operating on razor thin budgets in the midst of a crisis, and they do it with grace, resilience, and tremendous community support. All of this highlights what market vendors, staff and customers knew before the pandemic hit: by working together, local communities can thrive, even as we replace hugs with elbow bumps.

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