As NC restrictions grow to fight a pandemic, many local farmers’ markets left in limbo

As NC restrictions grow to fight a pandemic, many local farmers’ markets left in limbo

- in COVID-19, Environment, News, Top Story
Image: Adobe Stock

Closures, uncertainty besiege small farmers as spring season gears up

Because of a typo, this story originally stated farmers markets pose more of a health threat than groceries. They do not pose a greater threat.

Durham city and county officials have forced the popular Durham Farmers Market in Central Park to close, at least temporarily, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, jeopardizing small farmers’ livelihoods just as the spring season begins.

The Southern Durham Farmers Market on NC Highway 55 is also in limbo. The Durham Roots Farmers Market on West Main Street is not scheduled to open until April. Other markets at Duke University and UNC Chapel Hill, where students have been sent home for the semester, have also closed.

All four state farmers’ markets remain open, in Asheville, Greensboro, Charlotte and Raleigh. However, Gov. Roy Cooper’s recent executive order prohibits more than 100 people gathering there at one time.

Amy Blalock, spokeswoman for the City of Durham, said the administration sought guidance from County Health Director Rodney Jenkins, who defined the farmers markets as large community events not open-air groceries.

“The Director provided his guidance and stated that it would be considered a large community event if 50 or more people” can gather, Blalock said, and thus is considered to aid in COVID-19 spread. “Regretfully, the City’s position after receiving his guidance is that the Durham Farmer’s Market cannot be held until restrictions are lifted on large gatherings.”

However, the food itself is not considered a risk for COVID-19. Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised “there is no evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 associated with food.”

Durham Farmers Market Manager Susan Sink told Policy Watch that at the state level, all farmers’ markets are considered in the same category as grocery stores and allowed to remain open.

“But the decision about each individual market falls to each local municipality. Each City Manager and their staff have access to information that we do not have access to and they are making their decisions based on that information,” she said.

“We are trying to come to some mutual agreements regarding safety protocols that go beyond what has been recommended so far by the State for farmers and markets,” Sink added. “We are optimistic that we may have found a solution that the City of Durham can support and we are waiting on a reply to our proposal.”

Like grocery stores, the state farmers’ markets have implemented a no-sampling policy. An agriculture spokesman said the markets are “adapting to the latest updates regarding social distancing, with some vendors adding a curbside pick-up option for people who would like a mixed box of produce.”

Nonetheless, customers should take precautions when touching produce state Agriculture Department spokesman Brandon Herring said, “just as they should other surfaces right now. Washing hands or using hand sanitizer before and after touching produce is recommended, and of course, thoroughly washing produce is a best practice.”

Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler provided a statement: “Food is one of the most essential elements to survival, and it is important that we continue the operation of food sites such as the farmers markets even in the wake of this extraordinary global pandemic. We are fortunate in North Carolina to have a strong agricultural industry, which means consumers have access to fresh local foods. Supporting local farms is important to continuing to have this access.”

Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association

Roland McReynolds, executive director of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, said these markets pose no more of a public health threat than grocery stores, which have been packed with panicked customers. The farmers’ markets could implement additional measures, such as spacing vendor stalls farther apart, to enable social distancing. They could also extend hours to spread the crowds over a longer time.

“I’m worried that they’re unjustly being closed down,” McReynolds said. “People have to eat and they should have access to as much fresh food as they possibly can. It’s critical they stay open.”

Other states, such as Minnesota, and municipalities like Los Angeles, have interpreted farmers’ markets as outdoor groceries, not events, according to the national Farmers Market Coalition. 

The Durham Farmers Market is a weekend destination for thousands of people. (It holds an additional market on Wednesdays in the summer.) More than 60 farmers participate in the market, which also features arts and crafts.

The farmers market also serves low-income families, accepting WIC and SNAP benefits. Funded by a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield, the market has a special program for these customers that offers “triple matches” for food; for every dollar spent, the market provides three dollars’ worth of food, which can help many low-income families whose children are home from school.

“People have to eat and they should have access to as much fresh food as they possibly can. It’s critical they stay open.”

Sink said the market is providing additional produce to food pantries. “We want to continue our service to the less-fortunate in our community and we will continue to work with both of these groups to provide solutions that meet their needs in the upcoming weeks,” she said. 

Sink said farmers are prepared to make home deliveries of orders and work together in teams to deliver items from multiple farms, bakers and other food vendors. Some farms, like Coon Rock, also offer “Community Supported Agriculture” subscriptions. Depending on the subscription, customers can receive boxes of produce, eggs and meat; the goods are usually distributed at a central location.

Durham Farmers Market officials have not yet said when it will reopen.

Although smaller, the Southern Durham Farmers Market is also popular for residents living in that area of the county. “We do not know exactly what’s in store in the near future, but we are committed to remain open as long as the city allows,” reads a message on the market’s Facebook page.

In Orange County, officials there initially closed the Eno River Farmers Market in downtown Hillsborough through April 3. However, today Corly Jones, co-manager of the market, said Orange County officials  have since allowed it to reopen.

“Our board of directors is working very hard to figure out the safest way to do so,” Jones said.

Eno River Farmers Market officials are emailing newsletters to customers, informing them of where they can buy goods. Many vendors, including those selling crafts, are offering drive-thru pickups at individual farms and in parking lots, as well as home delivery. 

The market closures are occurring at a vulnerable time for small farmers, McReynolds said. The vendors overwhelmingly depend on these direct sales for their income. The bills are due for expenses incurred over the winter — for soil amendments, irrigation systems, seed and other supplies. 

Some farms also supply local restaurants. But many restaurants have either temporarily closed or need less food. Gov. Roy Cooper has ordered all restaurants to close their dining areas, with only take-out and delivery service allowed.

Child nutrition centers, recently established to service kids who home from school and day care, can’t accommodate most raw produce.“It’s very difficult for day cares to take uncooked product and turn it into food,” McReynolds said. “There’s not a lot places that can do that preparation. The infrastructure is not strong.”

Nor is the federal infrastructure strong for small farmers, even though they compose most of the farms in the U.S. According to 2018 U.S. Department of Agriculture data, 89% of US farms are small, defined as those with gross cash income of $350,000 or less per year. Nearly a third of small farms are classified as “low-sales,” and earn less than $150,000 annually.

So far, small local farms have been omitted from proposed federal bailout programs, which are favoring the travel and hospitality industries. But unlike large agribusiness, small farmers, especially those that grow non-commodity crops like vegetables and fruits, rarely qualify for significant federal subsidies and crop insurance.

The majority of those federal price supports go to farmers growing wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton and rice, which are publicly traded on exchanges and futures markets.

Even The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has criticized the system, arguing the subsidies have become a “crony scheme to primarily help a small number of large producers with high farm household income and wealth.”

When the state legislature convenes — currently scheduled for April 28 — lawmakers will likely propose economic relief packages, said state Rep. Robert Reives, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee.

“At this point what those packages look like are still in very early stages,” Reives said. “Considering how hard farmers have been hit generally over the last couple of years I would expect there would be a package to help them. I know there will be several of us advocating for that but there have not been specific discussions that I have been a part of so far.”