Farmers markets appeal non-essential designation

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by Meghan Wayland

Farmers took a hit March 24 when Governor Scott declared farmers markets non-essential services and ordered them to close at least until the end of April.  The announcement came not long after farmers began adjusting to revenue lost as a result of statewide restaurant closures. 

Farmers, eaters, and nonprofits are now banding together to present safety plans to regulators and demand farmers markets be declared essential services in an effort to keep them open.

“Not having a market — it’ll mess me up big time,” said longtime dairy farmer and cheesemaker Laini Fondilier.  Ms. Fondilier owns and operates Lazy Lady Farm, a goat dairy in Westfield.  Over half her business comes from restaurant sales and farmers markets.  

“My sales have dropped 80 percent, so I’m making aged cheese with the milk that’s coming in,” she said.

She hopes switching at this time from making soft, young cheeses to hard, aged cheeses will get her through the slack economy.  Maybe a hard situation calls for harder cheese.  

Milk never stops, but if milk goes into cheese, and cheese can improve in storage, Ms. Fondilier can avoid wasting milk until the fog of this pandemic lifts and she can land her products in the hands of eager buyers once again.  The hope is that cheese in a cave proves to be money in the bank, but her cave has only so much room, and Ms. Fondilier said she’s had to slash prices on her younger, bloomy rind cheeses to make space. Still, no one’s buying.

“I’m going to name it cheese toilet paper,” she said.  “Maybe they’ll buy that.”

Paul Lisai of Sweet Rowen Farmstead in Albany has faced a similar problem.   

“Artisan cheese?  You might as well give it away,” he said.  “I literally sent it to stores and said, give this cheese to any customer that buys anything of mine.  Then I eventually changed that to, give [this cheese] to any customer that buys anything at all.”

Mr. Lisai said farmers market sales make up a quarter of his income but feels grateful his product line is diverse enough to keep him nimble in the wake of the economic crisis.  In places where he was once selling only eight jugs of milk each week, he’s now selling 80.

“At this point we can’t keep up with bottled milk sales,” he said.  “We’ve been totally maxed out.”  He said cheese curds, cheddar, “things your kids can eat,” have been recent big sellers.   “People have been stocking up on staples,” he said, and they seem to be doing so at grocery stores.

“I haven’t been to a grocery store in three weeks” because the risk to himself, his business, and his employees is too high, Mr. Lisai said.  

“I lost sales at all my institutions and restaurants — 35 percent of my business in about five days,” he said.  “The world did a flip flop, and now everyone’s going to the grocery store.”

Small farm advocacy nonprofit Rural Vermont said in a statement Friday:  “It’s our belief that if proper sanitization is followed, [farmers markets] are safer than grocery stores.” 

In fact, the state’s COVID protocols recommend, but do not require, grocery stores to switch to pre-orders and pickups, leaving some to wonder why farmers, most of whom sell outside the confines of a building, have to go to greater lengths than grocers to sell food to people.

“To me, a farmers market is a healthier place to get your fruits and vegetables than the grocery stores because we’re outside,” said Judy Szych, co-owner of Breezy Hill Acres, a vegetable and tree farm in Coventry, and president of the Newport Farmers Market.  

She said Newport is looking at different models for meeting safety expectations with the goal of opening no later than Memorial Day.  Newport’s original start date was slated for the day before Mother’s Day.  

“It’s a work in progress,” Ms. Szych said of the new market format.

“Naturally, vendors will be more than six feet apart, and we’ll have to limit the amount of people that come at a time.  We’ll have hand sanitizer at every single station.  We’ll put it on our Facebook page that people can call up the vendors and get an order assembled ahead of time,” she said.  

Markets throughout the state are in the process of drafting and testing plans.  Brattleboro was the first to implement new social distancing and sanitation protocols, and several markets throughout the state have used the southern Vermont town as a starting point for developing their own regimens.

Both Sweet Rowen Farmstead and Lazy Lady Farm have stands at the Capitol City Farmers Market (CCFM) in Montpelier.   

In a statement, CCFM President and Northfield-based veggie farmer Hannah Blackmer said, “Our market is determined not to close.  Markets around the country are adopting a long list of safety protocols that ensure they’re one of — if not the — safest ways to shop for groceries.  Our winter market continues to operate, primarily as a pickup site for our vendors.”  

She said the market is limited to food producers (no crafts or live music allowed for now), and has established a pre-ordering hub on its website so customers can select what they want from vendors in advance.  Farmers then have the order packaged and ready to go for pickup at market when customers arrive.

When asked how much extra work it would be to receive pre-orders online or over the phone, package them, and have them ready for pickup before most people have even hit their snooze buttons on a Saturday morning, Ms. Fondilier said, “A lot.  A LOT.  But if this doesn’t work, we go to another plan.  I don’t think this [CCFM market] board’s going to give up.”

Ms. Blackmer described with grave precision the level of detail CCFM took to ensure safety at the market.

There’s a controlled entrance and exit to limit the number of shoppers in the market at any given time to ten, she said, and there’s a table in front of farmers’ displays that ensures a six-foot barrier between customers and farm products. 

“Payment by check is highly encouraged, followed by credit cards, followed by exact cash; all payments are deposited in a box on the table,” she said.  “All of this limits exchanges.  Tables are sanitized after each purchase.”

Ms. Fondilier was one of nine vendors present in Montpelier to try out a version of the new vending system.

“It was okay,” she said.  “It was a little weird because we’d see these old customers and we’re waving.  Markets are very social and a lot of these customers are old customers.  A couple customers grumbled about changes, she said, but she also got a couple of big tips.

“One person just plain wrote me a check,” she said.

“Here’s the thing:  Under normal circumstances, we want folks to think of markets as an event, a social meeting place, a place-maker in the community,” Ms. Blackmer said.  “But in times like these, it’s important for the Governor to know that we’re more flexible in our ways of operation than the corporate food chain.  We take the health of our community seriously.”

Ms. Szych felt the same.  She and her husband, Carl, have been involved in the Newport market since the mid-nineties.  She’s been market president for about six years. 

“We certainly hope to continue the market because this is one of the oldest markets throughout the state of Vermont,” she said.  The Newport market is nearly 50 years old.  

Unrelated to the coronavirus, the Newport Farmers Market is facing another threat to its success.  The city of Newport has asked the market, for the first time in its history, to come up with rent in the amount of $6,000 a year for the strip of grass it occupies on the Causeway.  

The farmers market made only about $5,000 last year, according to Ms. Szych, and $4,500 of that was spent on insurance, credit card fees, and advertising.  While the United Church of Newport and the American Legion have both offered their parking lots to the market free of charge, Ms. Szych said that moving to a new location could be risky.

The Glover Farmers Market shares Newport’s uncertain future.

Randy Williams, manager of the Glover market, said he’s waiting to see how the pandemic unfolds before making any decisions as to the future of the market.

“I am playing a wait-and-see game as far as Glover’s market goes, to see how the pandemic progresses and fades,” he said in a statement.  “This will only be our third year, and we have about 12 vendors consistently.  Some just do our market, but several do other markets as well.”  

He said he had yet to contact Glover vendors but plans are underway to send them information along with their yearly vendor application.  The uncertainty around the future of markets, he said, must be very difficult for farmers as spring approaches and planting must soon begin.

Ms. Szych said her husband, Carl, already has his seeds for the season.  

“We’re going to plant them,” she said.  “Forty-five to 50 percent of our income is based on having this market.  The others need it to supplement their income.  I know some of the vendors don’t make that much, but what little they do get, it goes to their bills.

People rely on the market, she said — farmers and customers.  Ms. Szych described a couple of food assistance-linked programs in Vermont that help low-income people purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.

“This [closure would] really affect those families and customers,” she said. 

If people use their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards at farmers markets, they can earn up to $10 in Crop Cash, a farmers-market-only incentive designed to help people buy fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs at farmers markets.  Crop Cash benefits both Vermont’s low-income residents and farmers.  

“There’s a lot of families that use these coupons so they can get more fruits and veggies in their diet,” Ms. Szych said.  “I’m concerned about those people in particular because they’re hurting for money as it is, and they need these programs to supplement their diets,” she said, adding that Newport has consistently ranked either first or second in the state as the market that accepts the most nutrition incentive coupons, demonstrating the need in the area for the market that accepts them.   

Farmers are banding together in this time and Mr. Lisai feels hopeful.  He said people are interacting on social media and finding creative ways to support fellow farmers. 

“This pandemic happens, markets crash, so everyone goes to set up their own websites and doing home delivery and it’s chaos,” he said.  “Now everybody’s taking a breath and trying to figure out a way to collaborate and get our products together on one list.”  

He named several local farms, including his farm and neighbors Hillside Farm in Albany and Ardelia Farm in Irasburg, that piloted home delivery models in response to the dramatic shift in markets.

While he doesn’t think home delivery is a long-term solution, he said it’s helping many businesses survive for now.   

“In three weeks the grass is going to be growing and we’re going to be haying,” he said.  “We’re just not going to have the time to invoice, pack and send.”

 Mr. Lisai said he hasn’t had time to sit down and actually look at his numbers, but feels like he might be breaking even.  He hasn’t had to lay anyone off.  

“I have the best crew of people right now and hopefully forever,” he said.  “We weren’t making cheese at all this week, so I kept some of the guys busy by pouring concrete.  There’s always wood to cut.  I’ve been selling round bales, selling calves. 

“I’m confident some farmers markets will run this summer,” he said.  “This isn’t going to kill us.  We’re here to feed people.  We’re not just here when times are good.”

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