COVID-19 creates new challenges for local growers and farmers markets

Growers and operators grapple with public health concerns, the loss of restaurant partners and a finicky customer base.

Shoppers at the Saturday downtown Berkeley farmers market on March 28. Photo: Pete Rosos

When businesses started closing in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Carle Brinkman, food and farming program director of Berkeley’s Ecology Center feared farmers markets would be next to shutter. On behalf of the California Alliance of Farmers’ Markets, she sent a letter to the California Department of Food & Agriculture urging policymakers to recognize farmers markets as essential businesses due to the role they play in supporting growers, local economy and communities across the state.

“There are still some cities and counties that do not see [markets] as essential, but rather as events.” — Carle Brinkman, Ecology Center

Though never receiving an official response to her letter, Brinkman and other farmers market operators breathed a sigh of relief when public officials deemed markets essential in the March 16 shelter-in-place order, which stated they could continue to operate on a conditional basis.

“We got the message back that markets, like stores and food banks, are incredibly important,” Brinkman said. “But there are still some cities and counties that do not see [markets] as essential, but rather as events.”

Such is the case with Oakland’s Jack London Square farmers market. The market is currently operated by CUESA, but the propery’s landlord, CIM Group, were the ones to make the call on closing it. A representative for Jack London Square stated that the property “is currently suspending all events and gatherings to reduce community transmission of COVID-19. The health and safety of all visitors, tenants, staff and event volunteers is of utmost importance and Jack London Square’s top priority. In an abundance of caution, they are opting not to reconsider at this time.”


Marketplace safety

Thankfully, there are many other East Bay farmers markets locals can turn to for fresh, seasonal produce. And while some shoppers are concerned about the safety of these open-air markets, organizers say they have completely revamped procedures to ensure staff, vendors and customers can safely shop and maneuver through setups that maintain social distancing.

“We are taking it incredibly seriously,” said Brinkman of the Ecology Center’s three Berkeley markets. “The California Department of Public Health published guidelines specifically for farmers market sites, and we have initiated some changes in specific areas.” Such measures include increasing sanitizing and setting up hand washing stations, suspending cooking demos and food samples, posting CDC guidelines throughout the market and having gloved staff members monitoring crowds and encouraging social distancing. It should be noted that the Berkeley markets implemented these measures even before the new shelter-in-place order mandated stricter protocol.

A masked vendor from Solano Mushroom at the downtown Berkeley farmers market looks out onto the street from behind a social distancing barrier. Photo: Pete Rosos

“That’s been the most challenging guideline to enforce,” Brinkman said of social distancing. “You can’t control what people are going to do once they’re inside. We have initiated greeters at main entrances who greet and remind customers to observe and respect social distancing. We also conduct crowd counts around every 30 minutes, and if crowds exceed a certain number then we have [people] wait at the entrances, or tell them where to go in order to give more space to other shoppers and vendors.”

Despite the precautions being taken to ensure a safe and civil shopping experience, some markets have seen a decline in numbers. Brie Mazurek, communications director for CUESA, noted that San Francisco’s Ferry Building farmers market in particular took a considerable hit due in large part to the lack of out-of-town visitors. Berkeley’s markets, though, have seen only a slight drop in attendance, according to Brinkman, thanks to the community’s “locavore” dedication.


Signs stating the 6-foot social distancing rule along with tips on how to avoid spreading germs at the west entrance of the downtown Berkeley farmers market. The Ecology Center put up the signs and instated these safety measures before the new March 31 shelter-in-place order went into effect. Photo: Pete Rosos

Nonetheless, CUESA and Ecology Center are doing everything possible to reassure people that farmers markets are safe to attend. At the Ecology Center’s markets, only workers are handling produce, and there are separate lines (with 6-foot-wide marks drawn on the ground) for grocery selection and transactions. In addition, customers are encouraged to use digital or mobile payment service when available. (Per the latest set of issued orders, customers are no longer allowed to bring/use their own bags.)

“We are trying to be as responsive as we can and we take it very seriously, and want to emphasize getting it right because it’s [about supporting] 60+ farmers and vendors,” Brinkman said, “as well as feeding our community,” including individuals using CalFresh, Women Infants & Children (WIC) benefits, and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) vouchers.

Growing pains

The Berkeley Basket farmers (from left) Marianne Olney-Hamel, Rachel Lane and Moretta Browne
The Berkeley Basket farmers (from left) Marianne Olney-Hamel, Rachel Lane and Moretta Browne. Photo: Claire Weissbluth

From a grower’s perspective, it’s a challenging time to be in business. Many local farmers are pivoting in order to accommodate lost revenue from restaurant partnerships by taking on direct grower-to-consumer relations through one-off farm boxes or CSA (short for Community Supported Agriculture) sign-ups.

With the growing concerns of the spreading pandemic, CSAs have seen an unprecedented surge in membership within the last few weeks.

With the growing concerns of the spreading pandemic, CSAs have seen an unprecedented surge in membership within the last few weeks. Consumers unwilling to venture to the grocery store can order a fresh box of vegetables online to be delivered to their door or picked-up at a nearby drop site.

For the Berkeley Basket farm manager Marianne Olney-Hamel, the public’s renewed interest in buying from local farms was a welcome relief. According to Olney-Hamel, the popularity of farm box subscriptions had been in steep decline over the last several years. Due to the unreliable sustainability of the CSA business model, many farmers didn’t think CSAs were worth their time and had been phasing them out.

“I was honestly nervous that we weren’t going to be able to fill up,” Olney-Hamel said of CSA memberships for the Berkeley-based micro-urban farm. “And then once COVID concerns hit, people really started emailing us.”

“People’s first reaction is suspicion,” said Olney-Hamel of the emails inquiring about the farm’s harvesting techniques and overall safety of the food. “But these vegetables will have been touched by four hands total rather than things coming from grocery stores, where who knows where [the produce] came from and how many people have touched it.”

Family-owned Frog Hollow Farm in Brentwood also has been experiencing a recent boom in business. Not only has the farm seen a major uptick in CSA subscriptions, but the pantry goods sold on the farm’s online marketplace are flying off the shelves.

“Anything that’s shelf stable is doing really well right now,” said Rachel Sullivan, Frog Hollow’s farming assistant. “Our CSA memberships are up, and we have more people right now than normal.” Sullivan said Frog Hollow has seen a 47% increase in fruit box sales alone — a sizable percentage considering it’s currently the farm’s low season.

Despite this seemingly good news, however, there are still many growers who do not have the infrastructure in place to support a CSA, and still others who grow exclusively for a failing restaurant industry. Kristyn Leach of Namu Farms falls into both categories. The former Oakland resident is working to keep her business partners at San Francisco’s Namu restaurants afloat, while also remaining operational. (“I put radishes in every spare space I have to help generate revenue for Namu,” she said.)

Her Winters-based farm is currently taking a financial hit, but Leach is more concerned about the future impact of losing restaurant-grower relationships and how it will alter the local food system and economy.

“It’s a mess like everything else,” Leach said of the situation. “For my circumstances, it means that potentially my main economic anchor isn’t there anymore. But when I think more broadly about the whole hospitality industry though, those restaurant relationships helped incubate small-scale farms and helped a lot of small businesses get off the ground. No matter how [growers] shift their business models, there’s nothing that will replace the unique roles those restaurants play.”

When asked about setting up a subscription service, Leach claims that it’s not a viable long-term strategy for small growers like her. While recognizing that CSAs are filling a need right now, Leach said that with much of the Bay Area’s workforce at home — including a significant chunk of the population who previously worked on large, catered campuses — she fears that cooking at home will lose its appeal once the shelter-in-place order has been lifted.

“There’s a bit of romance right now surrounding cooking at home, but what percentage of people will retain it as a lifestyle change? Or was it simply because of panic?” Leach said. “If people go back to work and it’s business as usual, and most meals are provided by corporate campuses, this will make farms pivot again. That sort of agility is a pretty big load to bear.”

A need for sustainable support

The Happy Boy Farms stand at the downtown Berkeley farmers market features signs explaining the vendor’s policy regarding social distancing and has tables placed in front of it as a barrier to prevent shoppers from entering into the produce space. Photo: Pete Rosos

Leach is not alone in her concerns. Many growers and farmers market organizers are worried that the recent interest in local produce and CSA subscriptions might be nothing but a passing fad. With so many farms reevaluating their business model on the fly, and scrambling under pressure in order to fill the community’s needs, farmers and organizers are holding their breath.

“The way we, nonprofit operators survive is to collect a small stall fee,” Brinkman explained. “It pays for staffing, roadblocks, etc., but [these fees] are essential to having [markets] operate,” but if customers aren’t showing up to the market, then farmers won’t either. And if farmers don’t pay a stall fee, then organizations, like Ecology Center and CUESA, that tirelessly advocate for statewide access to healthy, nutritional food, lose critical funding.

In the meantime, the California Alliance Farmers’ Markets coalition will continue to fight for markets in the Bay Area and beyond, and for their inclusion in the small-business relief package.

“It’s so important to have a resilient local food system when you see supply chains struggling to keep up,” said Mazurek. “I think local farms have an important role to play in this crisis and we don’t want any produce in the field going to waste. It’s a really important time to support local farmers, now, in whatever way we can.”