State Farmers Market | Photo by Jennifer Robertson

Market Uncertainty

In April 2020, Eat by Hart Fowler

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Local farmers want the public to know, North Carolina’s farmers markets are open for business.

North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services has categorized the state’s farmers markets as being the same as grocery stores; they are allowed to remain open during the coronavirus shutdown. At the State Farmer’s Market, you’ll find local produce, meat, desserts and plants for your garden. Please support your local Farmers Market this spring!

Mike Jones, owner of Mae Farm in Franklin County, has been selling his pork, beef and dairy products at the State Farmers Market since 2004. As a vendor, he has seen an increase, albeit slight, in sales this spring, even as the shadow of the coronavirus lingers everywhere. 

Last November, Jones renovated his location at the market, adding a counter where the only customers handling his products are those that have made a purchase. But he’s still stressed about what the future holds. 

“It is a worrisome time,” Jones says. “I am concerned if the state were to close the market down. It may not have a huge impact on the community, but it would on me.”

Indeed, there is no rest for the independent local farmer. 

Oftentimes, the work is seven days a week, sun-up to sun-down and, even then, there’s no guarantee that a crop won’t be ruined by weather or insects or the herd won’t get sick. Add to that the difficulty of competing with mega-farms run by global corporations that offer cut-rate prices and it’s a wonder farmers can sleep at night. 

But with a global pandemic threatening to shut down the very venues where many local farmers earn their livelihoods, at the opening of the spring season no less, the uncertainty we’re all feeling likely translates to sleepless nights for our farmers. For many, the only fallback is a shaky plan to make home deliveries. The serious risks of bankruptcy or being forced to shutter farms loom large. 

Fresh produce at the State Farmers Market
Fresh produce at the State Farmers Market | Photo by Jennifer Robertson

At 15,600 square feet, the Raleigh State Farmers Market is one of the largest in North Carolina and it’s where many farmers in the region earn their livings. The Farmers Market has already closed its main restaurant and the other two are only offering carryout. Sim McIver, a manager at the Farmers Market, has been in constant contact with officials at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to discuss the very real possibility of closing the market. 

“Vendors are worried,” McIver says. “They’re worried if the market is going to stay open. No one knows how long this is going to last. Things are happening so fast and there’s really no training for something like this.”

In the meantime, McIver’s staff is taking extra precaution with sanitation and cleanliness, encouraging vendors to keep customers from handling produce unless they’re purchasing it and to wipe it off if they do. Locally grown food is handled by fewer people than the produce at the larger stores and the state market is open air which significantly decreases the risk of exposure in comparison to the enclosed spaces of larger stores. 

Couple these safety benefits with larger groceries being cleaned out by panicked shoppers and many produce vendors have yet to see a dip in sales. Some have even seen an increase in commerce, attracting both new and regular customers. If the state deems the market safe enough to stay open, there may be a silver lining. But if the coronavirus were a horse, no one is putting their cart in front of it anytime soon. 

Jones of Mae Farms says he has recently made several bulk sales to customers making what he calls “precautionary purchases” and he has noticed an increase in new customers. He says his regular customers haven’t slowed because “they trust we’re going to be here.”

But so far, farmers have only seen the best-case scenario.

Jones’ fallback plan if the market were to close for an extended period of time would be to make home deliveries.

“I would have to apply for a permit to move around, try to deliver food for people,” he says. “But I’m just not set up for that kind of business.” 

Jennifer Lusky is the operations manager for Rare Earth Farms which has been selling all of its meat at the State Farmers Market for 10 years. 

Lusky says she has also seen a recent increase in sales which she believes is due to grocery stores running out of organic meat. Closing down the market would be devastating for her farm and the employees that work there. 

“It is very scary business-wise, especially for a small farm with our sole income coming from the sales of our product at the State Market,” Lusky says. 

Her fallback plan if the market closes or if quarantines keep customers at home is also to try to restructure her business to make home deliveries. It is unclear for Lusky or Jones how that would work as a business model in comparison with selling their food at one of the most popular markets in the area, they say, but hopefully, they won’t have to find out. 

For Jennifer Britt, owner of Britt Farms, the selling season hasn’t started yet. For 10 years, her strawberries have gone to State Market in mid-April, the only place she has ever sold them. The short shelf-life of most produce, especially strawberries, makes farmers even more susceptible to steep declines in attendance or stoppages at the market. 

“Once the produce is ready, it has to go somewhere,” Britt says. 

Britt has taken to social media to encourage people to support the market. 

“In my opinion,” she says, “eating local right now is more important than it has ever been.” 

Bill Walker’s produce and bison meat from his Walker Farms has been a staple at the State Farmers Market for 12 years. Pushing 70, Walker doesn’t make it down to the market in person much these days. Instead, he delegates the work to employees. 

When I asked him if he’s ever seen anything like this in his life, his answer is, “No, have you?” 

He is concerned, he says, but knows that all things pass. 

“I tell you one thing, we’re not going to run out of food, we just won’t have a place to sell it,” Walker says. “If they were to close the market, I guess the cows and the chickens and the buffalo can eat the produce. Then we won’t have to buy feed.”

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