On April 22, 2020

Farmers markets cleared to reopen May 1

By Katy Savage

After declaring farmer’s markets non-essential businesses and ordering them to close March 24 to the dismay of farmers, Gov. Phil Scott said Friday, April 17 that farmers markets will be able to reopen on May 1 under strict guidelines.

Scott made the announcement as part of a plan to slowly reopen the economy. The specific guidelines for reopening farmers markets were not yet available as of Monday.

The decision to reopen comes after a month of confusion around the state’s regulations.

All non-essential businesses were ordered to close in-person operations on March 24. Farms, farmsteads and food hubs were allowed to stay open, but to the surprise of farmers, farmers markets were excluded from that group.

Northeast Organic Farming Association Policy Director Maddie Kempner said farmers markets in at least 19 other states, including New York and Massachusetts, have been allowed to stay open despite social distancing guidelines regarding Covid-19.

“There was hope Vermont, being a champion of local food, would do the same,” she said. “It was somewhat surprising. This is all new to us.”

At one point, farmers’ markets in Vermont were told they could not operate, even without in-person contact, despite other non-essential businesses being able to operate through online and curbside pickup sales. Farmers’ markets were later told they could open with permission from the state.

“The communication has been really confusing around all this,” Kempner said.  She said it’s been challenging for farmers that rely on the markets to reach their customers.

The Vermont Farmers’ Market and Vermont Farmers’ Food Center in Rutland is one of nine winter farmers’ markets and one of the largest in the state.

“I was sorely disappointed, as were many people, that they closed the markets down,” said Greg Cox, the owner of Boardman Hill Farm in West Rutland. Cox served as a board member of the Vermont Farmers’ Market for 30 years and is president of the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center. “Every market in the state was left to their own devices to figure out what we’re supposed to do.”

Cox said the farmer’s market was informed by the state they had to close, after initially receiving permission to operate. “They showed very little leadership,” Cox said. “As far as agriculture and farmers’ markets, they dropped the ball — they got it wrong.”

Cox said the state’s decision have hurt Vermont’s farm-friendly reputation. “Vermont has this reputation built on the back of grassroots effort. It’s like the local food capital of the country,” Cox said. “The first hiccup comes along and they throw us overboard.”

He said there are benefits to local food.

“People aren’t handling it as much,” Cox said. “A lot of it is organic. A lot of it comes from 20 miles a way at most.”

Vermont Farmers’ Food Center started curbside pickup three weeks ago, but sales have dropped from $32,000 a week to $4,500, Cox said. “That’s income the producers will never get back,” he added.

Cox said the market took precautions similar to the grocery stores. One-way traffic in the aisles and six-foot markers were put in place to encourage social distancing.

“The Rutland market really went out of the way to put in place protocols to keep people safe,” Cox said.

Kempner was hopeful Vermont officials would lift restrictions on selling seeds and plant inserts for  home gardens. She also hoped the May 1 guidelines would enable customers at farmers markets to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits—something they can’t do through online ordering.

Vermont Farmers’ Market President Paul Horton anticipated it would be a long time before the market would be able to operate like usual.

“Nobody knows, not even the governor,” he said.

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