Coronavirus fears close local farmers markets

Escondido Farmers Market in undated photo/dweisman

Due to fears of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, some local governments and property owners in California have temporarily ceased farmers market operations, while other markets remain open after bolstering safety measures to prevent spread of the virus.

Abruptly closing markets, affected organizers say, hurts farmers and market customers, especially when access to fresh fruits and vegetables is a must to boost immunity levels and enhance public health.

Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, learned last week from the San Diego Police Department that a special events permit for farmers markets had been cancelled through the end of March. The action followed recommendations by Gov. Gavin Newsom and state public health officials that non-essential gatherings be postponed or cancelled, and essential gatherings be limited to no more than 250 people.

All San Diego County farmers markets had agreed to comply with the closure orders by Wednesday, March 18. Many indicated they would wait for official clearances before re-opening.

“This has upended our farmers, and our small farmers particularly,” Gbeh said. “Selling at farmers markets is the only way that they pay their bills and something like this they cannot recover from. That is our concern.”

If closures linger for a month or more, she said, “that might be too long for us to ever reopen.”

San Diego County farmer Steve White, known as “Farmer Steve,” has been selling produce at local markets for 25 years. He said the city’s decision to shut down markets left him “blindsided.”

“Some guys unfortunately will just be out of business immediately, but if this goes on for a long time, then we are going to have one heck of a battle,” White said. “I had to tell some people I’m not going to be able to deposit some checks for a while.”

White said he is more fortunate than other small growers because he can sell produce through his community-supported agriculture service.

“Because of this emergency situation, I’ve been on the horn to a lot of people, so I’m going to be able to make it work because I’m doing the CSA, but ultimately, the farmers market is key,” he said.

In addition to the hardship for farmer vendors, Gbeh said the farmers markets operated by the county Farm Bureau are located in disadvantaged areas and are “the only access points to the community of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Some vendors were looking for alternative ways to sell their produce while the markets are closed this month, according to The San Diego Union Tribune.

Rodney Kawano Farms in Oceanside and Vista sells solely at 12 farmers markets in San Diego and Orange counties, Kim Kawano-Walters said.

“It basically means no income, so all us farmers are scrambling on how we’re going to move our produce,” she said.

The family-owned business, which has operated for three generations, is now selling CSA — community-supported agriculture — boxes of produce while markets are closed.

The Orange County Farm Bureau operates eight farmers markets. Casey Anderson, executive director of the county Farm Bureau, said two of its larger markets have been shut down through March. In that case, decisions were made by the landlords that own the space where the markets are held.

“People still need to buy their food and do their grocery shopping, so if you start closing places where they can do that, then you naturally funnel them into one location anyway,” Anderson said. “It makes sense stopping a concert in a sports arena that would bring 3,000 people together inside a building, but a farmers market is a smaller gathering and people need food.”

Memorial Day 2016 at Welk farmers market in Northern Escondido/dweisman.

For farmers markets that remain open, leaders say that in addition to the existing food safety requirements, markets added more safety measures including telling customers to stay home if they have any symptoms, adding handwashing stations, eliminating sampling and encouraging customers to maintain social distancing.

Dan Best, who manages the Certified Farmers Markets of Sacramento County, said market closures will cause a domino effect, also affecting employees. For farmers who cannot sell produce, Best said, it is likely the crop will be left unharvested.

“Small farmers will likely give up on the crop because the labor for picking is higher than what they would ever make in revenue,” he said.

Regarding the closures, market associations and others have reached out to government officials to try to reach a solution that allows markets to operate.

“We are working actively with local and state policymakers to get clarification on why farmers markets aren’t considered a grocery store, compared to large special events,” Gbeh said.

A shelter-in-place order issued Monday by six San Francisco Bay Area counties identified certified farmers markets, farm and produce stands, supermarkets and other food-selling establishments as “essential businesses” allowed to remain open, and identified “food cultivation” as an essential activity.

The manager of the Pacific Coast Farmers Market Association, Ben Palazzolo, said only half the association’s 30 markets remain open, and said the closures represent a major economic hit for farmers and communities.

“A lot of the closures are going to be through March or even through April, which is potentially going to end the farmer’s business,” Palazzolo said, adding that the alliance is working on resources to aid farmers. “Anything that we can pass along to our farmers is helpful, because a lot of them don’t have the funds to not be selling for two to three weeks.”

The California Farmers’ Market Association recommends that market customers visit a market in good health and stay home if unwell; wash hands and don’t touch your face; do not self-serve at the market; regulate your own social spacing of 3-6 feet; and wash all produce before consumption.

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Most of this story was written by Christine Souza, an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at [email protected]. Assistant editor Ching Lee and The Grapevine contributed to this story.

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