Farmers Markets Survive – and Thrive – in the Wake of COVID-19

By Micha Ide, Pierce County Fresh 

Farmers markets have been an important part of the local food economy in Washington since the early 1900’s, when the public market at Pike’s Place first opened its doors. These days farmers markets act as a crucial sales outlet for all kinds of farmers and local vendors, from new and small businesses to larger and more established ones. Being able to connect directly with consumers allows producers to relay their stories firsthand, answer customer’s questions, and describe their business practices.

For Miranda LeonJones of Bright and Sunny Ginger Beer, the Bellingham Farmers Market has been essential to her success. “Being part of the market community is one of the most rewarding parts of being in this business,” she says. “New customers are introduced to my product on a regular basis, and loyal customers know where to find me every week. I have made friends and found mentors in my fellow vendors.”

The emerging COVID-19 pandemic meant that Washington’s farmers markets had to adapt quickly in order to continue bringing healthy foods into neighborhoods and sales to the farmers. “Fortunately, farmers markets were flexible enough to turn on a dime, with a dime. No one had budgeted for extra signage, PPE, hand sanitizer, or staff time. Likewise, the drop in number of vendors that farmers markets could serve, vanishing sponsorships, and uncertainty put extreme financial stress on market organizations,” according to Colleen Donovan, Executive Director of the Washington State Farmers Market Association (WSFMA). 

“When COVID-19 hit, it wasn’t clear how local farms would be able to sell their food, where our small business vendors would connect with the community, and even whether shopping indoors at the grocery store would be safe. With $1.3 million passing through our four markets in 2019, including nearly $80,000 in food assistance, Tacoma Farmers Market is both a powerful economic engine for our local agricultural and small business communities and an important food access resource.

Despite challenges with increased costs of running a market and evolving information about COVID-19 transmission, we knew we needed to open our farmers markets in order to support our vendors and our shoppers,” says Anika Moran, the Executive Director of Tacoma Farmers Market

Market managers across the state worked together to meet the new restrictions and keep shoppers and vendors updated. Throughout the pandemic the WSFMA held weekly ”COVID Convos” via Zoom with market managers across the state to keep them informed of how to safely and legally operate. The WSFMA also created a new section on their website with the latest ideas from around the country, the updated public health guidance, and downloadable signage. “Our farmers market community really came through. Every single market was driven to ensure farms and other vendors had ways to sell, good food was getting to families, and everyone stayed as safe as possible,” says Donovan.

With Governor Inslee’s June 30 “Reopening Proclamation,” public health measures at farmers markets, including separating vendor booths and limiting shoppers, were no longer required. With the emergence of the Delta variant and regretful surge in cases, farmers markets have continued to work to protect the health of shoppers, vendors, staff, and volunteers.

Market staff and vendors are urging customers to continue to wear masks, maintain physical distance when possible, and use hand sanitizer so farmers markets can continue to serve vendors and shoppers alike.  

Shopping at farmers markets is one of the safest ways to purchase food and other local products during a pandemic – the most obvious benefit is the outdoor environment which has been proven to reduce transmission of the virus. Buying from a farmer at market also means your food has come directly from the field to your market basket (which is also great for reducing our carbon footprints). As the pandemic has shown, keeping the local supply chain strong is more important than ever. 

“The good news,” Donovan explains, “is that while overall reported sales were down in 2020, the individual farms and vendors did OK even with a dramatic drop in shopper counts.” An increase in purchases made with federally subsidized food access programs like SNAP, Pandemic EBT, and SNAP Market Match demonstrated the incredible need for healthy food from local sources in a safe shopping environment for Washington families.

“Furthermore, Washington farmers markets received direct COVID Relief and Recovery grants totaling over $2 million from state disaster funds through the WSDA and Department of Commerce. This investment is a total game changer and will ensure farmers markets and all the vendors they serve will be able to not just survive but rebound from this pandemic.” 

Find one of Washington’s 160 farmers markets near you by visiting the Washington Food & Farm Finder, or the WSFMA website. While you’re there, be sure to thank the vendors and the market staff who have been working tirelessly to keep us safe and well-fed during these difficult times!