July 30, 2020
Editor’s Note: We want to thank Ben Feldman, Stephanie Fenty, and Hannah Fuller of the Farmers Market Coalition for this guest post on the challenges that farmers markets face in light of the persistent pandemic and in celebration of National Farmers’ Market Week, observed August 2nd through August 8th.
No matter how you look at it, 2020 has been a challenging and uncertain year to be in the farmers market business. The impacts of COVID-19 were felt hard and fast by farmers markets in the initial phase of the response to the virus. Farmers market operators, State Associations, and The Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) threw themselves into the fight to keep farmers markets open as we all struggled to keep up with changing information, inconsistent guidance, and evolving customer attitudes. While grocery stores and other food and agricultural infrastructure was deemed essential, farmers markets were overlooked despite their herculean efforts and drastic operational changes to make farmers markets among the safest places to shop.
The farmers market sector has now largely moved into a second phase of COVID-19 response, where markets confront the realities of operating week-in, week-out with the presence of the virus. And those realities are concerning. As farmers market operators grapple with increased costs and declining income, many wonder whether they will survive the pandemic.
Next week marks the 21st annual National Farmers Market Week, which provides us an important opportunity to reflect on the essential nature of farmers markets and the importance of strong partnerships and support networks.
One clear lesson of COVID-19 is that farmers market organizations who had the capacity to build strong relationships with their elected officials were better positioned to make their needs known, ensure that markets were listed among essential businesses, and keep their farmers markets open. Take Minnesota for example: when Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order on March 16th closing bars, restaurants, and other public gathering places, the Minnesota Farmers Market Association (MFMA) acted quickly. MFMA’s Executive Director, Kathy Zeman, was able to get on the phone with Minnesota’s Commissioner of Agriculture Thom Peterson to clarify that the closure order was not intended to cover farmers markets. Thanks to this direct line of communication and prompt response, MFMA was able to issue clarification to their membership on the morning of the 17th that farmers’ markets were in fact essential and exempt from the closure order. This clarity was key for farmers and farmers market operators in Minnesota at a critical time in the season.
“COVID-19 starkly highlighted the benefit of MFMA’s productive working relationship with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). Farmers’ markets were deemed essential from the very beginning, due to MDA Commissioner of Agriculture Thom Petersen’s deep knowledge of all MN agriculture. MDA pivoted to all things COVID-19, assigning staff to supporting farmers’ markets and our vendors. We worked together as a team to develop health safety guidelines that fit farmers’ markets, our vendors, and our shoppers. MDA staff joined our statewide weekly zoom calls to offer support and clarification. MFMA is super appreciative of the leadership and support offered by MDA to keep our farmers’ markets operating safely for our vendors and our customers.”– Kathy Zeman
But the relationship between MFMA and the Minnesota officials didn’t happen overnight, instead it was built over the years. And National Farmers Market Week was vital to building that connection. Last year both the Governor and the Commissioner of Agriculture participated in a corn shucking competition to kick off farmers market week (they lost). The event, organized by MFMA, provided a great opportunity to cement a positive relationship with key decision makers that paid off when markets needed the support the most.
With National Farmers Market Week 2020 beginning Sunday, now is a great opportunity to follow MFMA’s lead and build those relationships. While large special events like a corn shucking competition are off the table in this unique year, farmers markets need the support and understanding of decision makers more than ever. You can still invite your local, state, or federal elected officials for an in person or virtual visit to the farmers market. You can refer to our advocacy toolkit for farmers market operators and use our invitation template as a guide to make the process easy.