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Seen but not Heard: Farmers Markets on the Frontline of the Coronavirus Crisis

(This blog was co-written with Ben Feldman, Executive Director of the Farmers Market Coalition)

The coronavirus pandemic has shown how quickly our food supply chain can be interrupted. While farmers markets are often viewed as a privilege for the well-off, this pandemic has cemented markets as essential businesses that have an important role to play in increasing access to local, healthy food for everyone. Yet, not enough support, funding, and resources are currently directed to organizations and individuals that run markets.

In the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, confusion reigned on many fronts. For farmers that grow and sell locally at farmers markets it was a scary time. Fully staffed, with crops in the field, stocked up with seeds and growing supplies for the coming year, many had no idea whether their markets would be open for the season, or worse yet, whether customers would come. Markets — mostly run by hard-working volunteers operating on a shoestring budget — were faced with sorting out local regulations and once allowed to open, implementing costly safety measures.

What consumers, farmers and market managers have realized over the course of these many months is that farmers markets are a lifesaver in the face of a lumbering food system that was not prepared for crisis. Consumers could find food and shop safely in the open air. Farmers who lost other sources of revenue were able to turn to their farmers market as a source of additional income. Market managers realized that by innovating and implementing safe ways to shop they could keep their markets humming.

However, despite the impressive resilience of our local systems, challenges have persisted. Changes came with cost, and overall revenues for the markets themselves were not as robust as before. Social distancing requirements reduced the number of vendors that could be accommodated, and vendors that had health concerns or labor shortages were slow to return. According to a Farmers Market Coalition member survey, 74% of market managers surveyed reported decreased income, while 93% reported added costs, including the purchase of PPE for market staff, rental of more handwashing stations, new software or services, and additional staff to rearrange market layouts and monitor customer traffic.

Unfortunately, farmers market operators have largely been left out of the initial coronavirus-related financial support mechanisms implemented by state and federal governments. The House bill that passed in May contains important provisions that would provide grants to farmers markets and farmers for COVID-19 costs and allow more farmers markets to access Payroll Protection Program funds, but these provisions have been left out of the latest Senate bill.

But it is not just short-term assistance that is necessary. American Farmland Trust and the Farmers Market Coalition are offering recommendations to help markets thrive in the long term.

Fundamentally, as a nation we need to make sure that farmland does not give way to residential and commercial development. To ensure local and regional food systems remain healthy and vibrant and farmers stay in business, we need farmland. Unfortunately, trends are not good. AFT’s recent report shows that between 2001 and 2016 alone, 11 million acres of the nation’s irreplaceable agricultural land was lost or fragmented, equal to all the land in the U.S. used to produce fruits, vegetables and nuts. Roughly 4.4 million of these acres were “Nationally Significant” – our best land for food and crop production.

Increasingly, local food and farms are in the path of development. Most of the fruits, nuts, veggies and dairy we consume comes from farms on the urban edge — 55% of eggs and poultry, 68% of diary, 77% of vegetables and melons and 91% of fruits, tree nuts and berries. While federal support through the Farm Bill is important, farmland protection is most effective on the state level. All states have done something to protect farmland, but all must do more to stem the loss of irreplaceable land for cultivation. Nationally, states have permanently protected more than 3 million acres, secured more than 40 million acres with restrictive covenants and zoning, and reduced the tax burden on more than 475 million acres, helping them remain viable for agriculture. But AFT recommends continued vigilance and aggressive policy implementation to make sure that our local food systems can feed communities now and during future crises. The report recommends six approaches, most effective when combined, that keep farmland in farming, from permanent protection under agricultural conservation easements to agricultural districts and FarmLink programs that connect new and beginning farmers to available farmland.

In addition to protecting farmland, farmers must have access to robust, resilient markets that put them in control of their businesses rather than leaving them at the mercy of the commodity markets. Research shows that farmers who use direct to consumer channels incur less debt and stay in business longer than those who sell through wholesale channels.  Investing resources in the infrastructure of farmers markets provides opportunity for farmers while also ensuring shoppers have access to the best food around. These investments should include:

Expanding programs that improve access for shoppers using nutrition assistance programs such as SNAP, WIC and Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program at farmers markets will result in more stability in the farmers market sector. In addition to their powerful role in helping make healthy food more accessible, these programs create farm jobs and keep farmers markets open. These programs also help to actively work against the common narrative of farmers markets being only for the well-off, and can ensure that fresh, locally produced food is an option for all members of the local community.

If we want to see farmers markets thrive long term, it is also vital to increase funding to the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program to build capacity of farmers market operators, expand farmers market manager professional training programs, and ensure that those who have had less access to the program historically are prioritized for future funding. An influx of funding in programs like this will allow farmers markets to build physical infrastructure, improve food access, collect data and set the foundation for long-term financial stability.

Farmers, farmers markets, and communities will benefit greatly by efforts to collect data on a national scale and conduct focused research into the farmers market sector by USDA. Once we have access and insight into the variances of farmers market operations and impacts, we will be able to more accurately determine the specific needs of market operators of different market types. By investing in the researchers and organizations most well equipped to work with farmers markets, the USDA will facilitate a path to ensuring that farmers markets most effectively fulfill their intended purpose in providing a needed service for farmers, ranchers, small business owners, and community members.

Beyond these investments, farmers markets are essential businesses that should be treated the same as grocery stores and pharmacies. State and federal regulations should specifically include farmers markets in lists of critical infrastructure for emergency purposes.

By investing in farmland protection and resources for market operators and streamlining regulation and policies related to farmers market operation, we can ensure a local food system that supports our communities now and in the future so everyone, regardless of background or income, can access fresh, nutritious food.

Ben Feldman serves as the Executive Director for the national Farmers Market Coalition having spent 20 years focused on farmers markets and sustainable agriculture.

John Piotti has worked at the forefront of sustainable agriculture since the early 1990s, first in his home state of Maine, and now nationally. In 2016, he became the president of American Farmland Trust, bringing new energy to this storied organization that helped create the conservation agriculture movement.

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John Piotti

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