By DOUG GRAVES
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Direct marketing farmers are facing unprecedented farmers’ market, restaurant and school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, consumers want and need healthy food, so opportunities exist to maintain and grow local food systems.
In order to better understand the needs of direct sales farmers, the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) hosted a one-hour virtual listening and sharing session last month, allowing online guests to brainstorm with one another and share concerns about farmers markets as they move forward during this unpredictable time. There were roughly 150 callers to the Direct Market Farmer session, nearly 100 of them posting comments and sharing information. Included were many authorities in farmers’ markets.
“Due to the coronavirus we’re trying to help our customer members know how to get to some local producers,” said Rachel Tayse, Begin Farming Program Coordinator at OEFFA. “We’re going to post a lot of resources that will help the groups out there, especially farmers. Even OSU Extension agents are working from home and have postponed all events but they are available via email. These agents have put together some guidelines as to what farmers need to now and more about food safety during the times like these.”
Foremost in the minds of most during this webinar get-together was the concern about transmitting coronavirus to fruits and vegetables.
“Scientists say the coronavirus is not transmitted through produce,” said Amalie Lipstreu, OEFFA Policy Director. “If growers would just follow the regular food safety protection provided by the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) there will not be any issues. The real concern is still with gathering in groups at places, including farmers’ markets. As of now, ODA has not yet issued any official guidelines around farmers’ markets.”
Also chiming in on the webinar was Jaime Hadji, chairperson of the Ohio Farmers Market Network (OFMN). The OFMN is an organization that represents the interests of farmers markets throughout Ohio, their managers and vendors. Hadji wants to stress to all the importance of farmers’ markets and how they can be of assistance at this time.
“We realize there is information overload going on, but we’re working quickly with partners from around the state on a coordinated effort to speak to legislators and decision makers about what we want,” Hadji said. “Right now we’re researching all about the markets and even county health departments from around the country to learn what their best practices are. We’ll eventually submit a letter to recommend farmers’ markets as essential services.”
They’re thinking ahead in Indiana as well. Tamara Benjamin, Assistant Program Leader and Diversified Agriculture Specialist with Purdue Extension Agriculture & Natural Resources, says that although the regular farmers market season is still several weeks away, there’s a significant chance they will be postponed or potentially canceled. That, she says, would be an economic catastrophe for many farmers and farmers markets across the state.
“When you connect with farmers and buy their goods, you help protect those who rely on sales for their livelihoods and who have already invested in supplies, seed and seasonal operating costs,” Benjamin said.
Communication, Benjamin says, is one way to initiate and maintain contact with local farmers.
“Thanks to social media and other digital methods of communication, you can reach out directly to local farmers and offer positive reinforcement along with your business,” she said. “Many Indiana farms maintain a regular presence on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. There they share news about their operation and information about product availability.
“Some farmers may pivot to a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model in which they assemble a packaged box of goods that you can pick up or potentially have delivered to your home.”
It’s too early to say if farmers markets will be halted due to Coronavirus, but Benjamin says there are alternatives.
“If farmers’ markets are canceled, local producers will do their best to set up alternative marketplaces where they can sell directly to you,” she adds. “Farmers may create opportunities for you to order online, establish a pop-up stand for you to pick up products on their farm, designate coordinated drop-off points where you can purchase their products or even deliver products directly to your residence.”
Purdue Extension suggests that growers stagger pickup times to reduce crowds, pack boxes in a way that prevents customers from touching other products and even have hand-washing or hand-sanitizing stations available.
Benjamin suggests going to www.indianagrown.org for a county-by-county list of Indiana producers, as well as their farmers’ market resource page. Other connections can be found at Market Wagon, Hoosier Harvest Market or Green Bean Delivery.
Hoosiers can go to www.farmersmarketcoalition.org for information updates. Those in Kentucky can go to www.ca.uky.edu/cmspubsclass/files/extensionpubs/2012-19.pdf for updated information on farmers’ markets. Ohioans can go to http://ohiofarmersmarketnetwork.org/.