LocalHarvest Newsletter, July 28, 2020|
Farmers Markets Get Creative During Crisis
Happy mid-summer! I wanted to focus this month's article on some of the creative ways that farmers' markets are changing up their models in order to comply with coronavirus safety protocols, while ensuring the provision of essential foods and keeping local farmers and vendors afloat. It is indeed trying times, but many out-of-the-box thinkers are rising to the occasion. In the following interviews I highlight two different markets in the Pacific Northwest: Hood River, Oregon where their outdoor farmers market is going strong in slightly different ways, and Boise, Idaho where their outdoor farmers market has turned into a robust drive-thru market.
First I spoke with Hannah Ladwig, the market manager of the Hood River Farmers Market, which is ran by the non-profit organization Gorge Grown Food Network. They have pared down their market to just foods (not craft vendors), spread them out considerably, and limit the number of shoppers that can be in the market area at any given time.
What sealed the deal in getting the City of Hood River to allow you to operate the outdoor farmers market this year?
The City of Hood River allowed us to open the outdoor season one month early this year (starting in April instead of May). Our indoor season at May Street Elementary was supposed to go through April. When COVID-19 began shutting everything down, we eagerly sought to open the outdoor season early.
Two items were key factors in allowing us to open: 1) Fortunately, Governor Kate Brown included farmers markets as an essential service early on, which emboldened the City to grant us permission to operate. In addition, we developed a robust safety plan to demonstrate to the City that we could hold a responsible market. To make our plan, we consulted Oregon Farmers Market Association, the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Oregon Health Authority, CDC and others. We are still continuously updating our operating procedures to reflect best practices.
At the beginning of the season, Gorge Grown was selling most of the vegetables from their truck before the farmers had enough to stock a table. That was a unique concept that appears to be a win-win for consumers and for the farmers. Was that hard to execute? Do you think other small farmers markets could do something similar?
We opened the outdoor season one month early and farmers weren't going to be ready with fresh produce until late April or early May so we continued to have the Gorge Grown Mobile Market booth for the first month. It benefited our local farmers who had some, but not enough product to justify a booth at market yet.
It is a challenge to execute and takes a lot of coordination between the farmers and our staff. It can also require significant infrastructure like our refrigerated Sprinter van, cold storage, etc. We do use the Mobile Farmers Market to help prop up smaller markets- going in as an anchor vendor to help build demand and then pull out when a farmer is able to take our space. This year, we are supporting the White Salmon Farmers Market this way.
Are there any bright spots or positives that have come out of this new way of running the farmers market?
There are a lot of bright spots in running the market during this tough time- lots of gratitude from our vendors and customers. Our sales are nearly on track with last year despite having less vendors (no craft makers or artists right now). Our SNAP Match program use has increased by nearly 200%. With this program we give SNAP customers (formerly food stamps) shoppers an extra $10 free to spend at the market. Some customers have said that they like shopping at the market even more now that we've streamlined our operations- we've placed vendors with similar items (produce, meat, value added) in the same aisles, not spread out throughout.
What tips would you give other farmers market managers who want to create a similar "COVID-cautious" market?
Start small- We started the market with 14 vendors and averaged about 300 customers, now we are up to 30 vendors and 750 customers (our normal capacity is 45 vendors, 1,000 customers). Starting small allowed us to train or staff, volunteers, vendors and customers on our new operations.
Consult those who have done it- I learned a lot from Oregon Farmers Market Association who helped to compile best practices of other markets from around the state. I took those recommendations and wrote a plan that I thought would work best for our community and farmers market.
Communicate- it took a lot of staff time early on to communicate our rational for opening and our safety plan. As things change, we continue to share clear communication with our customers and vendors.
Be nimble- especially early on, conditions were changing constantly. Being flexible and using good judgement have allowed our season to continue successfully.
Next up is an interview with Tamara Cameron, Market Manager of the Boise Farmers Markets, who have switched their market to a drive-thru concept.
Was the drive-thru farmers market created in response to COVID impacts to regular marketing venues?
Yes. We were planning to open in our regular fashion and pivoted when Treefort, our large music festival, cancelled their event. At first we thought we would do a fenced market with limited entry, then, when the stay at home order was issued, we decided on the Boise Farmers Market Drive-Thru concept. It took three weeks to put it together and get it approved. We opened one week late on April 11. The concept that works was our 3rd try. We continue to innovate each week, although the improvements are tweeks now rather than overhauls.
How does it work exactly, and how has the reception been to the concept?
Customers reserve a pickup time, then order from our online store on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for Saturday pickup. We offer around 800 pickup windows through Eventbrite - 50 spots are available every 15 minutes from 8:30am to 12:45pm. Customers arrive at their pickup time and we put their groceries either in their trunk or on a table outside their car so they can put them in their vehicle.
We have ~80 people, mostly volunteers, putting together orders by time and we try to stay 30 minutes ahead all day. We have our vendors organized into "stores". Here is a video that gives a good representation of the project (it is a tear jerker, so inspiring!)
We take SNAP/EBT and have a Double Up Food Bucks match that is provided by the City of Boise. We handle those transactions on-site.
Are there any bright spots or positives that have come out of this new way of marketing? Such as attracting new customers, improving accessibility for disabled customers, reducing costs for farmers, etc?
Yes. We have found new customers! People who don't like walking around the farmers market but want to eat local love the BFM Drive-Thru. And, right now our loyal customers are happy to be able to get local food and support our farmers, ranchers and producers. The drive-thru is convenient and fast and shopping in advance of pickup makes meal planning much easier.
What tips would you give other market managers who want to create something similar?
Ours is a fairly complicated and labor-intensive system. And it works. So, I am happy to advise anyone who wants to run their market this way. I have a bunch of resources that I can offer as well as advice by phone. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel. Sounds like a sales pitch, but, seriously. We have learned a lot and are happy to share. No cost, of course!
A hearty thank you to both Hannah and Tamara for sharing their wisdom and creative problem solving with our community. It is efforts like theirs that keep local food systems strong and allow our communities to be fed with fresh, healthy foods. What could you try in your communities to launch a new farmers' market or pivot an existing one to thrive during these changing times?
To our health, -Rebecca Thistlethwaite
CSA / Food Hub Management Software