As coronavirus spreads, farmers fear market closures and lost income

For farmers who rely on farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer sales for a major portion of their income, the threat of a closed market could be existential.

Communities across the country are attempting to delay the spread of the novel coronavirus by canceling large events, closing schools, and banning large gatherings. But farmers who sell directly to consumers, through farmers markets or other channels, are concerned about how their farms will survive if those outlets temporarily shutter.

While the spring and summer farmers market season is not yet in full swing, places that have year-round markets, or where markets are about to open, are deciding whether to shut them down in the wake of the rapid spread of COVID-19, as the disease caused by the novel coronavirus is called.

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And for farmers who rely on farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer sales for a major portion of their income, the threat of a closed market could be existential.

“Farmers markets are essential activities for the economic livelihood of farmers and for food access for millions of Americans,” says Ben Feldman, executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition. “The closure of markets has the potential to bankrupt farmers and force people to go without food.”

Market managers and organizations that run markets argue that markets should be treated as essential services, on par with grocery stores and pharmacies.

“If grocery stores aren’t being asked to close, then why should the farmers market be expected to close?” says Feldman.

Yet some markets have already been canceled as cities move to restrict the size of public gatherings and officials strongly encourage people to implement social distancing to slow the virus’s spread. In Chicago, Green City Market’s Indoor Market announced Friday that it will close after officials banned gatherings over 1,000 people. Several markets in Los Angeles and Washington State also announced closures last week.

The early spring timing of the pandemic and its fallout are particularly difficult for farmers, says Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association in Pittsboro, North Carolina.

“It’s a business where you make decisions several months ago about what you’re going to spend to produce your crops, and you expect to get income at a certain time later,” McReynolds said. “The investments have already been made in the spring crops. So, it’s a very problematic time of year for this to happen.”

The financial impact of a shuttered market

Farmers who sell at markets often have multiple streams of income, but for some, the market itself is the farm’s economic backbone.

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McReynolds says that in his region, many farmers make 75% or more of their income at markets. GrowNYC, the nonprofit that runs 50 greenmarkets in New York City, says 85% of the farmers who sell at their markets report they would not be in business without market sales.

Because of their reliance on shoppers, many farmers and market managers are determined to keep markets open as long as possible despite the growing threat of the novel coronavirus. Their efforts include rapid-response changes to how markets are run and sanitized.

Colleen Donovan, executive director of the Washington State Farmers Market Association in Tacoma, Washington, says these efforts include “sanitizing equipment, additional hand-washing stations, not allowing sampling, [and] removing seating areas.” With new updates about the spread of COVID-19 arriving around the clock, markets in the state are working closely together to adapt to the “very, very dynamic situation,” she said.

In Illinois, farmers and market managers are considering new sales strategies, like preordering, drive-through pick-ups, and delivery to reduce the potential health risk to customers, says Liz Moran Stelk, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance in Springfield, Illinois.

“We’re trying to be positive,” she says.

Farmer Jody Osmund, who operates Cedar Valley Sustainable Farm in Ottawa, Illinois, is already making changes to how he delivers his meat CSA to customers around the Chicago area. He plans to keep to his typical delivery schedule but has communicated to his customers that he can deliver shares to their cars or leave bags to be picked up at drop sites to reduce physical contact.

“We’ve made some adjustments on-the-fly,” he says. “It’s extremely fluid. Things are changing seemingly by the hour.”

Still, even with new strategies at hand, it is a difficult time for producers, says Donovan. “The uncertainty is of great concern to all of our vendors who really rely on these sales for their livelihoods and for shoppers who rely on the vendors as a source of great food.”

Possible solutions in government safety net

Some advocates are urging the federal government to include assistance for farmers who sell at markets in the bill proposed by House Democrats that would provide emergency funding for those impacted by the spread of COVID-19.

“It is expected that further restrictions on public gathering will reduce the attendance and sales at farmers markets,” reads a memo from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition being circulated to policymakers on Capitol Hill and that was shared with FERN. “It is critical that the unique needs of farmers serving local and regional food systems are considered as part of the Congressional response to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

The memo suggests several pathways for government assistance to farmers who sell directly to customers or institutions, including reimbursements for donating unsold product to food bank and other emergency food sites, and support for processing and storage of excess produce.

The version of the bill agreed to by the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday included $1 billion in emergency food assistance programs but did not appear to address farmers specifically. The Senate could vote on the bill when it returns from recess on Monday, March 16.

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