Jamey wearing Gloves Mask

Local Farmers Adapt Quickly in the Face of Coronavirus

Jamey Gage of B5 Farm (pictured above) stands behind his table on 4th street at the SFC Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning. In front of him are stacks of plastic bags filled with broccoli that he’s selling for $5. He is wearing a mask, black gloves, and visibly steps back as a customer comes toward the booth.

This scene is a far cry from tables that are usually overflowing with bins of tomatoes, crowded with customers swapping anecdotes about their favorite varieties.

Now people are cautious. Moving slowly but deliberately, they keep a 6-foot distance and head directly for vendors where they order - deli-style - fresh veggies, meat, and to-go foods. The usual gathering, socializing, and poring over bins of produce has been replaced with single shoppers waiting in a short line to sanitize their hands and enter the market. Tents are spaced far apart, as though repelled by magnets, and front tables prevent access to the stacks of food in the back.

Small farms, local ranches, and farmers’ markets –symbols of a slow food movement that may have seemed out of place to some people in our modern food economy - have stepped up to bat in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Classified as a critical food access business, the farmers’ markets are open, and farmers are moving quickly to adapt to this changing food system.

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A Big Decision for Farmers: To market or not to market?

Making the decision to continue attending the farmers’ market has been a fraught one for some vendors. Jamey Gage says, “I know it’s a risk, but my wife and I have decided that we need to be at the markets.”

The crisis couldn’t have hit at a worse time - B5 Farms relies on tomato production from December to April for most of their farm income. Despite his initial uncertainty around attending the market, Jamey has sold out halfway through every market for the past three weeks.

Our farmers’ markets have taken every available precaution to minimize the risk of transmission, including limiting attendees, contactless point of sale, and enforcing physical distancing efforts. Despite this, some vendors have made the personal decision to not attend the market for the time being.

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Longtime ranchers Karen and Hershel Kendall at Indian Hills Farm mentioned that “we feel it is best for us to just stay put for now.” Still, with “so many veggies planted we hate [to] not to be able to sell them.”

They currently have a farm stand in Smithville, east of Austin. They encourage anyone who can to email or text them a preorder. Karen says they “would prefer farm pickup for those who might like a trip to the country to get out of the city. They could literally walk around with no one around them and enjoy the beauty of the farm.”

The farmers who are still coming to our SFC Farmer’s Market are putting safety first and encouraging field workers and packing shed crew members to stay home and isolate if necessary. This means smaller than normal crews are working hard to get produce harvested and packed while following new guidelines for farm hygiene and safety.

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A Changing Restaurant Scene Impacts Farm Business

Farm to table restaurants and farmers enjoy a symbiotic relationship. They communicate well before the market day so chefs can swing by to pick up boxes of seasonal produce they will highlight on their menus. But since dining rooms closed on March 16th, local farmers are forced to find new sales outlets.

Kris Olson of Milagro Farm, a pastured egg operation out of Red Rock Texas, lost all his restaurant orders in the span of 24 hours after the city decided to close dining rooms. Restaurant sales make up nearly 70% of his business, and he had no backup sales outlets other than his weekly booth at the farmers’ market.

Fortunately, at our SFC Farmers’ Market Downtown on March 21st Kris sold almost 400 dozen eggs in just a few hours – double his regular business. Smaller stores (like Dia’s Market in North Austin) also started ordering cases to sell to customers. Kris is hoping to find additional stores to sell through while large grocers grapple with an increasingly disrupted supply chain and folks look to their own neighborhoods for ongoing sustenance.

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Aubrey Noelke of Belle Vie Farm and Kitchen has been getting waves of orders for delivery and market pickup through an online app. “We were actually more prepared than we thought. Just by coincidence we set up online ordering through Barn2Door a year ago and just hadn’t turned the store on. As soon as we knew markets and restaurants would be affected, we were ready to start taking online orders.”

Vendors offering pre-ordering, CSA options, limited delivery services and more, have helped our markets stay slim and streamlined. The less time customers need to spend shopping means less time in contact with other people, and more time safe at home.

While not all farmers were prepared to roll out tech options, many have been finding success through text and email orders, as well as old-school CSA programs. For more information on preorders, CSA programs, and farm stands see our online resource here.

Beyond the Markets

Now, a lot of the day-to-day work for SFC Farmers’ Market staff looks different. We are working from home, constantly on the hunt for hand sanitizer, and in regular communication with state and local health authorities to stay on top of best practices while we navigate evolving regulations. We are also looking beyond farmers’ markets to alleviate some of the economic instability COVID-19 has brought on.

SFC is leading the development of a new project, in partnership with Foodshed Investors, Travis County, and the City of Austin, to increase food purchasing options in communities with limited access to full-service grocery stores. In order to provide economic relief to both restaurants and small farms, the city will provide funds to purchase local, fresh food from small and mid-sized farms, and shelf-stable pantry items that participating restaurants (who are no longer operating dining rooms and scaling back on to-go options) will sell at-cost to customers in their neighborhoods. This project's impact will be trifold: it will provide food to communities in need, relief to farmers facing fewer sales outlets, and generate revenue for restaurants during this crisis.

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SFC staff is also here to help you through the challenge of what and how to cook at home! Follow our blog for tips on cooking basics, like how to make beans, and figure out ways to incorporate all this great local food into your new routine.

You Keep Us Going!

From all of us at SFC, we want to thank you for the support you have shown local farmers and the patience you have with our new market protocols. We’d also like to thank our market crew for working through uncertain conditions and our state and local authorities for recognizing the critical place of farmers’ markets in our local food economy. If anything has been able to demonstrate the importance of a resilient local food system, this is it.

As an essential business, SFC Farmer’s Markets are here for you and your family. We are operating every Saturday from 9am-1pm, rain or shine.