Farmers markets: The underdogs of 2020

Customers walk through the Dupont FRESHFARM Market in Washington, D.C., which has been open throughout the pandemic under public health restrictions. (Lizzie Stricklin/George Washington University)

Every week, fresh goat’s milk, cheese, and “Goatgurt” is driven from Shepherd’s Whey Creamery in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to farmers markets as close as nearby Charles Town and as far away as Washington, D.C. When COVID-19 hit, owner Suzanne Behrmann said that some local markets responded “pretty dramatically.”

“One of them shut down completely and then opened as a drive-through market and that was a complete disaster,” she said. “We would get two or three orders a week, not even making $20. It was just a real dead experience.”

It took markets shifting back to something resembling a traditional experience for Behrmann and her small goat herd to see sales recover. This is a bumpy ride that many farmers market vendors in the D.C. area have experienced since the early months of the year.

Deemed essential services, D.C. farmers markets remained open since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic – but in order to keep vendors, staff, and customers safe, markets had to make sudden changes.

m.Farmers markets across the country provide the unique opportunity for customers to purchase food directly from producers and, likewise, for farmers to connect with customers face-to-face. This can boost local economies and reduce the amount of energy needed to transport food across long distances.

In D.C., farmers markets also provide additional incentives for low-income families. Most D.C. farmers markets accept SNAP and WIC benefits, as well as benefits for senior citizens. Many farmers markets in D.C. also “match” customers’ SNAP benefits so that each dollar can purchase more fresh produce.

Since March, the D.C. government has required farmers markets to comply with public health regulations by promoting social distancing and mask wearing. Markets must provide hand washing stations and vendor stalls may not offer samples. Customers also must be encouraged not to touch products before purchasing.

These practices are in place at the D.C. farmers markets currently run by FRESHFARM, a nonprofit that operates more than 20 markets in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Derel Farmer, FRESHFARM’s community outreach manager, said that the pandemic has forced market operators “to pretty much reinvent how we do business.”

“We understand that the farmer’s market is one of the few large, open venues left at this time,” he said. “There are very few other opportunities where large amounts of people can come interact and do so safely, so we are committed to making sure we keep this space open for people.”

This means offering pre-orders from many vendors for market pick-up or delivery. Market vendors must assign staff to manage either money or product but not both, and they are encouraged to prioritize contactless payment options.

It also means deciding not to open several markets this year, such as the White House and Foggy Bottom markets, which have lost customers due to the pandemic.

FRESHFARM vendors said that although they are pleased with the safety practices in place, it is not business as usual. Dana Garner Boyle, owner of Garners Produce in Virginia, said that she has had to hire additional staff to manage her farmers market stall amidst health restrictions.

“We have stuck to the routine of gathering the items for the customer,” she said. “That's extra work because it ties up our time when we could be chatting with the customer or refilling and restocking. So we have to hire extra staff to help get all that done and manage our lines so that everybody can maintain distance at the market better.”

Boyle added that it breaks her heart that customers are not allowed to choose their own products, which is “so much a personal choice.”

“I really can't pick out tomatoes that would suit everybody because that's something different,” she said. “So we just kind of make a joke of that, like, 'I will be so glad when y'all are able to pick your own tomatoes!'”

Behrmann of Shepherd’s Whey Creamery misses selling samples of her varieties of goat’s cheese, which she said “is a huge part of our selling strategy.”

“Because artisan goat cheese is not a necessarily familiar product to many of our customers – it makes so much variation, depending on the individual producer of the cheese – it’s really difficult for people to know what they’re buying and to be willing to invest in something that they don’t have any idea about,” she said.

Sustainability is also a concern. Zach VandeZande, the head of PR and publishing for Number 1 Sons, a small business that sells pickles, kimchi, and kombucha at D.C. farmers markets, said the business previously encouraged customers to take purchased products home in their own containers. Due to sanitation concerns, the business has switched to packaging the products beforehand.

VandeZande said Number 1 Sons is trying to balance how they can “stay as environmentally conscious and as environmentally responsible as possible while keeping people safe,” and added that this shift has been a “big touchstone” for the business’s customers.

Nevertheless, markets like FRESHFARM’s have taken this opportunity to innovate rather than crumble. While leaving several markets unopened this season, FRESHFARM also opened a new market in Virginia. Farmer added that FRESHFARM also plans to extend several of its markets further into the winter to provide more time for vendors to sell their products.

FRESHFARM has also extended its SNAP matching program to all its markets. This comes at an important time, as recent data reveals that the number of American adults who reported that members of their households “sometimes or often did not have enough to eat” surged to more than 26 million Americans in 2020, increasing the need for programs like SNAP.

Farmer said that customer feedback to the market’s effort to balance safety and accessibility has been largely positive.

“The one thing that we hear over and over again is ‘thank you,’” he said. “‘Thank you for doing this. Thank you for being here.’”

Boyle of Garners Produce said that she has seen steady business at her farm stand since the start of the pandemic.

“I think between our roadside market and the farmers market we've consistently stayed busy because people feel like their food has been handled less - it's picked one day, it's brought and sold the next - and it's outdoor shopping,” she said. “So I think they feel a lot safer buying food at a market than they do in the grocery stores right now.”

VandeZande of Number 1 Sons said he thinks customers are still attracted to farmers markets because there are “human stories” behind the products, and “those human stories matter.”

“One of the reasons people go to farmers markets is because they want to return to the idea that the land is connected, the product is connected to a human being who is making their living,” he said and contrasted the markets to grocery stores, where “food just appears as if by magic.”

At the end of the day, farmers markets remain essential to Behrmann and her goat herd. She said that farmers markets are the only venues she has found that give small farmers access to the marketplace, and where she can receive immediate, direct feedback from her customers.

“I can’t imagine being a farmer where I just send it off to a distributor and never got to get any direct feedback of what the customer thought I was doing,” she said.

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