Small Farmers, Local Markets Nimbly Adapt to a New Consumer Landscape

Farmers Markets in the Bay Area, like CUESA, have taken public health and safety measures to social distance and minimize contact during transactions. (CUESA)

Despite the coronavirus outbreak's disturbances to daily life, fresh fruits and vegetables are still making their way to farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) boxes. Some national grocery store chains might be facing temporary shortages, but local food sources with shorter supply chains have stayed nimble and in demand.

“[Last] Monday, we just started getting an influx of messages and emails asking if people could buy directly from us,” says Helena Sylvester, who runs Happy Acre Farm in Sunol along with her husband. “Our plan was to not start our CSA until June and only sell to restaurants until that happened.”

Sylvester's plans changed when the farm’s restaurant sales decreased, as many eateries closed their doors once California's shelter-in-place orders mandated take out-only service. “We decided to divert that produce to people instead,” she explains. 

Today the family-owned and -operated farm supplies around 20 boxes a week on a first come, first served basis, and they can be picked up at the farm or a drop-off site in Oakland. Sylvester says the demand is much higher than when Happy Acre was only supplying to restaurants. 

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“[Farms] seem like they're either switching to a farm box or, if they already had one, creating more room in there for new members,” notes Sylvester, who has seen many other small farmers adjusting their business models in recent days. “And it seems like there's almost not enough farms for the demand. A lot of people have waiting lists going.”

Berkeley’s Ecology Center, which runs three farmers markets, is committed to keeping all of them open through the coronavirus crisis. In accordance with new guidelines from the California Department of Public Health, their markets, along with others throughout the Bay Area, have installed new safety measures, including stoppage on produce sampling, increased hand-washing and sanitizing stations and social distancing rules. 

“It's kind of above and beyond what you'd even see probably at a grocery store,” said Carle Brinkman, the food and farming program director at the Ecology Center. Brinkman explains that each farmer serves one customer at a time, and a designated person handles payment away from the produce.

Social distancing guidelines and additional hand washing stations are one of the ways farmers markets like CUESA have adapted to the coronavirus pandemic.
Social distancing guidelines and additional hand washing stations are one of the ways farmers markets like CUESA have adapted to the coronavirus pandemic. (CUESA)

Customers are also asked to go into vendor areas one at a time and line up six feet apart as they wait to pay. “We're marking out those six-feet-apart spaces with either chalk or tape or cones to ensure the social distancing,” she says, adding that enforcing social distancing has proven to be the most challenging aspect so far. Ecology Center is also waiving all penalties for vendors who call in sick for the duration of the pandemic.

CUESA, whose San Francisco Ferry Plaza Farmers Market remains open, is taking similar public health precautions. (CUESA’s Jack London Square Farmers Market is currently on hold through May 1o, and their Mission Community Market returns from winter hiatus on April 9.)

“Our priority is really to make sure that our community is well fed,” says Brie Mazurek, the communications director at CUESA. “There's so much amazing produce in California, so many family farms. We don't want to see any produce sitting in the fields right now when there are hungry people who need to eat.”

Mazurek noted that open-air farmers markets can easily adapt to social distance-friendly layouts. “There's a lot more room to walk around and maneuver and create space. Especially as some of our vendors have had to opt out,” she says. “It's also just a much shorter supply chain for people. In terms of how this food is getting from the field to the market. There are fewer hands handling it.”

Though restaurant accounts have significantly dwindled, CUESA, Ecology Center and other farmers markets are sorting out how to effectively and safely get fresh produce and pantry items to the surge of people who are cooking at home. “Farmers markets and small and midsize farmers that sell there are poised for resiliency in that they can potentially pivot more quickly to a different business model,” says Brinkman.

“The one thing that they're not set up for in terms of resiliency is federal funding,” she continues. “They're often forgotten because they're a smaller size slice of the pie.”

Many small farmers across the state depend on farmers markets and restaurants orders that have depleted since shelter-in-place was instituted.
Many small farmers across the state depend on farmers markets and restaurants orders that have depleted since shelter-in-place was instituted. (CUESA)

On a local level, Ecology Center, a leading member of the California Alliance of Farmers Markets, is advocating that local officials keep farmers markets open as an essential service across California counties that have invoked stricter measures than the state. Farmers markets in Pleasanton and the Peninsula in the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association network have temporarily closed, for instance, while others in the South Bay recently reopened after a short hiatus. 

“They're essential for the livelihood of farmers and really essential healthy food access points for the community,” explains Brinkman, emphasizing that CalFresh (formerly known as food stamps) customers rely on farmers markets for fresh produce.  

Federal efforts are also underway by the Farmers Market Coalition, a national group that advocated that federal dollars from the stimulus package go to small and mid-sized farmers. The $2 trillion dollar bill, which the president signed into law, has $9.5 billion set aside for “agricultural producers impacted by coronavirus, including producers of specialty crops, producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools, and livestock producers, including dairy producers.” Distribution of those funds remains to be seen.

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“In this time of crisis, maintaining local food systems and ensuring that small and midsize farmers can be viable, and remain, and aren't bought up, feels absolutely essential to the long term health and wellbeing of the Bay Area, the state and the country,” Brinkman says.

Back at Happy Acre Farm, Sylvester and her husband are preparing to plant squashes, melons, early girl tomatoes for a summer harvest enough for at least 50 weekly CSA boxes. “We're hoping that this spike in interest and demand for regional food sourced straight from the grower isn’t a one time emergency purchase. We're going to plant for it like it's the new normal,” she shares. 

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“As awful as this entire thing has been to watch, watching the resilience of the farmers and their creativity has been really remarkable.”