Beating the virus: Farmers markets and growers adjusting to COVID-19 restrictions

By: - April 15, 2020 12:01 am

Holly Hammond sets up for a drive-through market in Charlottesville on April 3. (Holly Hammond)

For Holly Hammond, face-to-face interactions were the only way to sell the plant starts and vegetables she grows with her husband, James, on their farm, Whisper Hill, in Scottsville.

When the threat of coronavirus became apparent at the beginning of March, just as the spring market season was approaching, she had a swift change of heart.

“I didn’t really want to be around a zillion people,” she says. “We couldn’t keep doing [farmers markets] the same way. We’re going to have to do things differently. People can’t just come into your stands and touch everything.”

Things were looking grim for the Hammonds and thousands of other small-scale growers across the state when farmers markets started to shut down or limit operations to minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19. 

Agricultural economists projected last month that local and regional food markets nationwide would see a decline in sales of up to $688.7 million across the country through the end of May.

But because of savvy online marketing practices and a boost in customer engagement, farmers like the Hammonds are beating a virus that’s shuttering industries across the country.

After Gov. Ralph Northam ordered non-essential businesses to close and banned gatherings of 10 or more people, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services instructed farmers markets to follow the same takeout and delivery guidelines issued to restaurants. 

That irked advocates like Kim Hutchinson, who heads the Virginia Farmers Market Association.

Hutchinson objected to the designation and says that outdoor farmers markets are safer than grocery stores. She pointed to a recent experience at a supermarket in Richmond, where shoppers were huddled in the check-out line and getting handsy with the merchandise. 

“People were just picking everything up and touching it and putting it back down… None of this happens at the farmers market,” she says.

Many farmers markets have changed the way goods and money change hands. Some have spent the better part of the past month making tweaks as they go. Others have shut down entirely. Some are switching to a new model altogether.

That includes the year-round Charlottesville City Market. The Hammonds’ Whisper Hill farm was a regular vendor there until the market decided to close on March 13. 

However, City Market has reopened with a new format. Instead of milling about between pop-up tents, shoppers will remain in their vehicles while gloved workers put parcels in their trunk.

Sales will be conducted using Lulus Local Food, an online service that lets customers place orders directly with the vendors of their choice. 

Holly Hammond says the platform streamlined communications between all parties, which led to tremendous success last Friday at a drive-through “micromarket” that used Lulu for all transactions. 

“We sold $2,300 in plants, which was better than the first market we ever attended.”

That’s three times her sales at another weekend market that relies on customers to coordinate their purchases through Facebook, Venmo, email or whatever else works. 

Now Hammond is convinced that e-commerce is the best path for growers who want to salvage the spring market season and stay connected with their customers. 

Social distance might be the rule to staying safe, but social engagement is the key to staying afloat, says Michael Carter, Jr., coordinator of the Small Farm Resource Center at the Virginia State University Cooperative Extension.

“The first thing [farmers] should do is communicate with their consumers, be it stores, restaurants, CSA customers. You need to find out the best way to assist them. Farming is a customer-driven enterprise” says Carter, who grows organic produce on his land in Orange County.  

The pandemic has affected his work at VSU — he can no longer lead in-person workshops or meet with farmers — but he still has his business selling vegetables to African, Asian and Latino grocery stores and markets across the DMV region. 

“I’m confident I can still maintain my customer base and probably even grow my customer base a little bit because of my niche,” he says.

He acknowledges that might not be so easy for farmers who sell to restaurants which have significantly scaled back operations or closed altogether. 

New modeling suggests the number of Virginia COVID-19 cases could peak between mid-July and late August. Warming weather usually brings a flush of ingredients popular with farm-to-table chefs.

“May and June, those are big months (for sales). People are just so excited about produce. Summer months are our best months for tomatoes. It all counts. If you think about it, it’s only from April to November that we’re making all that money,” says Hammond.

For the growers who haven’t been spared from the havoc of coronavirus, there are some options for financial relief. 

Like other entrepreneurs in Virginia, small-scale farmers were eligible to apply for low-interest federal disaster loans through the Small Business Administration. However, The Washington Post reported Thursday that the program is out of money. 

Earlier last month Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Commissioner Jewel Bronaugh told the Virginia Mercury that her agency is working with the secretary of agriculture and forestry and the governor’s office to make changes to the existing Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund, saying her department is “looking at guidelines to see how [VDACS] can make some of that grant money available.”

As it is now, AFID grants are designed to help localities boost economic growth by funding the development of value-added goods made with products grown in Virginia. The local government must apply for the grant on behalf of an agricultural business and match the funds dollar for dollar.

At the end of March the commissioner posted a socially distant video message for those her organization serves, acknowledging their sacrifices. 

“To our smaller producers and our smaller growers, our farmers markets, our u-pick operations, our farm stands, we know that a lot has been asked of you and you have adjusted and changed to meet those demands and those needs and you should be very proud of yourself.” 

The federal government might offer another source of relief. The $2.2 trillion stimulus package allocated $9.5 million to alleviate the impact of coronavirus on producers that supply local food systems, including specialty growers and farmers markets. 

Some have suggested that those funds could do more to boost industrial farm operations than lend a hand to small family businesses. 

It’s unclear how it will be distributed in Virginia. 

Michael Carter, a small farms resource center coordinator with the Virginia Cooperative Extension, said he had yet to receive any information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture about how to apply for those funds. 

He has bigger concerns now, like planting as planned and staying connected with other farmers. They’re getting regular emails from customers who want to know how they can help. 

Carter says changes brought on by the pandemic present an opportunity for improvements in local food systems, but he’s skeptical about whether or not the effusive community response will last.

 “My concern is, when this has passed, is that altruism still going to be there?”

UPDATE: This story has been edited to reflect reporting that money for disaster loans through the federal Small Business Administration has run out amid a deadlock between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

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Cat Modlin-Jackson
Cat Modlin-Jackson

Cat Modlin-Jackson is a freelance journalist and radio reporter based in Richmond. Though originally from Virginia, she's also lived in Tampa, Fla. and Houston, where she covered politics for local publications. Contact her at [email protected]