Farmers’ markets considered essential by states
Farmers’ market managers and farmer vendors reported good sales and strong customer support at recent market days and advocated for those markets to remain open in providing food to the public in the wake of controlling the pandemic coronavirus outbreak.
While some markets in the region have closed or postponed sales days due to operating on government property or a landlord stopping sales for other concerns, Maryland and Virginia allowed market managers and boards to make their own decision about staying open and offered several recommendations to server customers safely. Delaware’s farmers’ market season begins in April with many markets not set to start operation until May.
On March 19, Maryland Department of Agriculture issued a statement that farmers markets are an essential business and important source of food for many throughout the state. “Farmers markets play a critical role in providing fresh, nutritious and locally-produced food products to customers across the state—especially those Marylanders who live in food deserts and those who rely on SNAP benefits to access fresh produce,” said Secretary Joe Bartenfelder. “It is important that we keep that supply line open while making sure we implement the same preventative measures used in grocery stores and other essential retail businesses.”
MDA urged markets to make necessary adjustments to promote social distancing; increase access to hand sanitizer/washing stations for staff, vendors and patrons; regularly sanitize any touch surfaces; and consider any operational changes that may reduce the opportunity for infection
Deana Tice, treasurer of the Anne Arundel County Farmers Market and a market vendor selling meat raised at her farm in Harwood, Md., said in the midst of organizations responding to the disease outbreak, the market’s board of directors decided to remain open for its scheduled day but gave produce vendors the option to not attend with no penalty of losing their spot.
She said about 80 percent of vendors came to the market on Saturday, March 14 and reported “very good traffic and very good sales.”
“The community was very supportive and wanted to buy local food,” she said.
The market organizers set up hand washing stations, made sure hand sanitizer was at every vendor stall and market workers wore gloves when handling raw food items and repeatedly disinfected tables and other commonly-used surfaces.
Marc Rey, manager of the 32nd Street Farmers Market in Baltimore, had a similar experience on their March 14 market day.
“In fact we had to keep people away from one another,” Rey said. “People basically felt it was safer than a grocery store because it was in the open air.”
Rey said they took the same precautions as other markets emphasizing hand washing and cleaning surfaces over and over again. He said throughout the market’s morning hours he was repeatedly thanked by customers for remaining open.
“It made me think we made the right decision,” Rey said.
Farmers individually took extra precautions at their market booths. Kip Kelley, of Full Cellar Farm in Jefferson, Md., said in preparation for selling at a farmers’ market over the weekend, he had all greens pre-bagged and altered credit card payment methods so he didn’t handle customer credit cards and customers touching the card reader was limited.
Agencies also recommend no free sampling of food items, restricting customers from handling food before it is bagged and purchased and reposition vendor stalls with more distance as some additional precautions.
Rey said closing the markets would have a “disastrous” effect on the many small-scale farmer vendors who rely on the market as a main income source but also the many low-income city residents who come for fresh food items.
“We’re their only source of fresh fruit and produce,” Rey said of the Baltimore market.
According to Juliet Glass, the Maryland Farmers Market Association director of external relations, in 2019, 21,873 Marylanders in 7,291 food-insecure households spent $455,128 in Maryland Market Money matching dollars and federal nutrition benefits directly with local farmers and agricultural producers at 36 Maryland farmers markets.
“As the country navigates the COVID-19 crisis, MDFMA feels strongly that farmers markets are important food access points and should be treated the same way as grocery stores and other businesses that provide essential public services,” Glass said.
In Kent County, the Chestertown Farmers’ Market saw record sales on March 14 with most vendors selling out, according to market manager Julie King.
“Every vendor had hand sanitizer or gloves and the customers were also practicing good hygiene and super grateful that the Market was still open,” King said. “It was super encouraging to see the community support the farmers and the local economy.”
After consulting with both the Maryland Department of Health and the Maryland Department of Agriculture, Janet Terry, manager for Olney Farmers Market in Montgomery County, decided to stay open, especially since she was informed that farmers markets were “considered essential services similar to grocery stores.”
“We have a large outside location, so social distancing is definitely not an issue given the amount of space we have,” Terry said.
They also implemented the additional precaution of handing out latex gloves to both vendors and customers.
Carol Carrier, owner of Plant Masters, a cut flower farmer in Laytonsville, Md., was a vendor at the Olney market on Sunday, March 15 and said she felt that people were glad that the outside farmers markets were trying to stay open.
She said she had already begun hearing the stories from her customers at the other farmers markets she attended earlier in the week.
“People were buying the flowers as a coping mechanism for the difficulties that are coming in the next weeks,” she said.
Managers and farmers said they are continuing to stay in contact with state officials as the disease outbreak continues to unfold.
We hope we’ll be able to stay open as grocery stores stay open,” said Tice. “Like the rest of the world, people need to eat.”
(AFP Correspondent Joan M. Kasura contributed to this report.)