BRATTLEBORO—April showers have brought May flowers — and new guidance from the state — to farmers’ markets.
In early April, people questioned whether the state would allow farmers’ markets to open during a state response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The response from the administration of Gov. Phil Scott came down as a yes-and-no kind of answer.
Yes, markets could open starting May 1, providing they follow a series of protocols designed to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
According to the Agency of Agriculture, Vermont has approximately 70 summer farmers’ markets. In Windham County, markets operate in Bellows Falls (opens June 2), Brattleboro (set to open May 9), Londonderry (opens May 23), Putney (opens May 24), and West Townshend (opens late May/early June).
And at least for this season, markets that remain open won’t be the weekly social gathering that community members are used to.
In Brattleboro, a market looks at new and strict guidelines
On May 9, the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market will open for the 2020 season with limited hours. The market will let customers shop in person or pick up pre-ordered items.
“It’s crazy busy, but we’re so grateful,” Market Manager Meghan Houlihan said.
As of Monday, May 4, the organization’s board and staff were still wading through the ever-evolving guidance issued by the state.
“We had a couple of ideas before the guidance came out, not knowing what we would be allowed to do,” she said. “So when the guidance came out, we at least had some things in the works.”
Customers can take advantage of a pre-order, prepaid, curbside pickup option, placing their orders directly with vendors. Items can then be picked up in the Market’s auxiliary parking area off Guilford Street near the Creamery Covered Bridge.
“The vendors will then place the orders directly in the customer’s trunk, so there will be no person-to-person contact for those who don’t feel comfortable with that,” Houlihan said.
The alternative is what Houlihan described as a “fairly limited in-person market” at the Market’s Western Avenue location.
“At this point, the state has mandated that only food and beverages be sold, so it’ll be a smaller contingent of our vendors,” she said.
According to the state, vendors must also keep a 12-foot gap between booths — not an imposition for the Farmers’ Market.
“We’re in the fortunate position of having a lot of land to work with,” Houlihan said. “I know that there are many markets in the state that can’t run simply for that reason.”
The space requirements and the need to have a specific customer flow have been “prohibitive” for some markets, she added.
The Farmers’ Market board weighed several scenarios in the days leading up to the state releasing its guidance, but one scenario the members never considered was canceling.
“There wasn’t a single moment when any of us thought we wouldn’t be doing a market,” she said. “Our market is 46 years old, and there’s just such a commitment among vendors to provide food to customers.”
“That’s really the underlying motive,” she said. “How do we get our products to customers?”
Farmers have historically been the Market’s largest segment of vendors. Houlihan said that some vendors have felt relieved that they can still count on farmers’ markets as a sales outlet, “although we have no idea what to expect in terms of customer attendance.”
In non-COVID-19 years, the Market has also attracted a large crowd of locals and tourists for lunch, she said. This year, a few vendors will offer prepackaged food, but people won’t be able to eat it on site.
Craft vendors make up approximately 10 percent of the vendors. Not a large percentage, Houlihan admits, but sometimes drawing people to a market is not about percentages.
“Losing the craft vendors and the prepared food is pretty significant,” she said.
Most of the state’s guidelines focus on maintaining social distancing practices; for example, patrons must walk a specific path through the market. The guidance also requires that the Market forego its social aspects by creating an environment with no picnic areas and no live music to discourage customers from spending hours visiting with neighbors.
Part of what many might miss this year is that social experience.
“Absolutely, and that’s precisely why the governor does not want us to have a market as usual,” she said. “It is because he doesn’t want it to be a place were people congregate, a place where people eat, a place where people listen to music. So it will be a very different market for sure.”
When asked if, overall, the guidance felt doable, Houlihan hesitated.
“We have been very disappointed that Gov. Scott did not consider farmers’ markets essential retail services early on, when a lot of states across the country were considering them essential services,” she said. “Markets provide a very important sources of food for people — healthy food that helps boosts our immune systems, right?
“And so, certainly, the guidance we feel is more stringent than it is in grocery stores and yet we are outside, we are arguably in a much more healthy environment,” Houlihan continued. “That part is frustrating.”
For example, the new regulations call for a 12-foot distance between booths.
“You don’t find 12 feet in grocery stores between cashiers,” she noted.
Houlihan didn’t recall whether the state solicited information from markets prior to releasing its guidance. She said the Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market board did provide the Agency of Agriculture with the safety precautions the market planned to take.
The organization also works closely with the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA-VT), which spoke out on behalf of markets across the state.
An increase in demand
At an April 30 telephone town hall hosted by Assistant Attorney General Molly Gray, a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, multiple callers asked what farmers’ markets would look like this year.
Anson Tebbetts, secretary of agriculture, food and markets, said the agency has prioritized reopening farmers’ markets, recognizing them as an important part of the state’s food system.
Tebbetts added that the agency and the Scott administration have prioritized distributing food as safely as possible. This means moving people through the markets as quickly as possible.
“We don’t want people congregating and gathering,” he said. “[Markets] are still going to provide what Vermonters need, which is food and fresh food; it’s just [that] the social aspect won’t be there.”
Tebbetts added that, from the research he has read, there is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through food.
Vermont is well prepared to meet this increase, Tebbetts said. He hoped one of the silver linings of the virus will be a renewed focus on transforming and strengthening the state’s local food system and its farms.
Tebbetts and Grace Oedel, executive director of NOFA-VT, said they have noted an increase in the demand for local food since COVID-19 entered the United States this past winter.
Oedel reminded listeners that most farmers’ markets accept EBT cards for 3Squares VT food supplement program (commonly known as “food stamps”).
NOFA-VT also supports a program called “Crop Cash” that doubles the amount a person on 3SquaresVT can spend on produce.
A farmer from Granville asked what support exists for farmers who needed to adapt to market changes due to the global pandemic. She and her husband are shifting from selling their products at a local farmers’ market to creating a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).
A question mark over everything
According to Houlihan, for many vendors, farming under COVID-19 has meant that “everything is just a huge question mark.”
“They just have no idea what kinds of sales outlets they’ll have,” she added. “Many of them depend on wholesale accounts, so a lot of them sell to restaurants and to retailers, and many of those channels have disappeared with our present situation.”
Houlihan said that her board anticipates operating at a loss this season. The organization’s early forecasts estimate revenue at two-thirds of the previous season’s.
“We’ll have to dip into some emergency funds that we have [so we can] keep running this year,” she said.
Houlihan shared that the Market’s fixed expenses average $45,000 annually for staffing, bookkeeping, a mortgage payment, property taxes, and rent for a parking area.
For revenue, the member-run organization gathers a 4 percent commission on sales from members, as well as a reserved booth fee and a membership fee.
The organization consists of a nine-member board whose members are also vendors. Houlihan, the organization’s paid staff member, is not a vendor herself.
Gov. Scott stated two weeks ago that farmers’ markets could open May 1 under a different framework, but Houlihan said her market didn’t receive the actual rules until last week. That’s one of the reasons the Market pushed back its original May 2 opening date by a week.
“Thank goodness we can open, though. That’s just the underlying chant we repeat as we’re waking up at 4 in the morning as we’re wondering how we’re going to get all this done,” said Houlihan.
For now, she asks the community to be patient as the Market “works through the kinks” of the new guidance.
Houlihan expects guidance from the state to continue evolving. She encourages customers to check the market’s website (brattleboroareafarmersmarket.com) and Facebook page (facebook.com/brattleborofarmersmarket).
The website also contains vendor information for those wishing to pre-order items.
Parking is limited to the upper lots, and volunteers will direct traffic. The hours are limited as well, so — again — check the website.
“We’re really excited to see our customers this year,” she said. “That’s what keeps us going.”