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Area farmers’ markets split on the decision to open amid COVID-19

The Collingwood BIA has cancelled the opening day for its farmers' market but Thornbury and Flesherton plan to open the farmers' markets for the season on the weekend of May 18
2020_05_01 Flesherton Farmers Market_Red brick house_JG
Susan Hard, who lives south of Maxwell, owns and operates the Red Brick House and has been selling her products at the local farmers' market for the past five years. Contributed photo.

Farmers’ Markets across Ontario are currently in the process of determining whether or not they will be opening for the upcoming season.

“Farmers' markets are considered essential businesses under the province's state of emergency,” says Ron Barnett, market manager for both the Thornbury and Flesherton farmers’ markets. “Both [markets] are in the planning stages for this season and both hope to open as planned on the Victoria Day weekend.”

The declaration that farmers’ markets are an essential service came as a major relief to market managers, vendors and farmers all across the province. 

“This is absolutely a relief,” says Susan Hard, local producer and Flesherton farmers’ market vendor. “Most of the vendors are really eager to get started.”

While the Thornbury and Flesherton markets have announced they will be pursuing opening the market in the coming weeks, the Collingwood BIA announced today that the Collingwood Downtown Farmers’ Market will not be opening as planned on May 16.

“As Ontario returns to a more normal state and if the market can be safely opened, the Collingwood BIA will again welcome everyone back to the corner of Second and Pine Streets,” said Susan Nicholson, general manager of the Collingwood BIA in a news release. “However, there is no expected date to reopen the market as yet, and it is possible that there will not be a traditional farmers’ market this year.”

The provincial government has classified farmers’ markets as an essential service as they provide fresh food and produce for the community and support revenue streams for local farmers. However, the classification also comes with a number of new restrictions and regulations.

In consultation with the Association of Supervisors of Public Health Inspectors of Ontario, a number of public safety protocols have been outlined and Ontario farmers’ markets will be required to have their layout plans and COVID-19 safety measures approved by the local public health department in order to get things rolling.

“Site and operational plans will be made and sent to Grey Bruce Public Health for their approval,” says Barnett. “Those plans will depend on whether or not the province's state of emergency is lifted in time for opening day. But, in any event, strict protocols will be in effect as regards social distancing, hand washing and limits to the numbers of customers on site, etc.”

New protocols will include making sure market stands are properly spaced out to ensure social distancing; customer circulation during the market will be monitored; COVID-19 fact sheets must be posted for all vendors; washrooms and hand sanitizer dispensers must be made available; no food sampling will be allowed; and no communal tables or seating.

For vendors with e-commerce offerings, certain restrictions have been placed to ensure pick up times are staggered and products are packaged properly.

“A lot of the vendors have come up with plans on how they will organize the front of their tents, either roped off or an empty table set at the front to create the distance,” says Hard. She has been a vendor at the Thornbury and Flesherton markets for the past five years and owns and operates the Red Brick House.

“I farm everything that I do and I produce hundreds and hundreds of pounds of food and I do it all on a third of an acre,” she says. “I love what I do. And, I love talking to people about it.”

Hard, who lives south of Maxwell, produces primarily fresh-grown produce, particularly garlic and herbs, which she also uses to make a variety of pestos, jams, and pepper jellies.

“I had already made my huge seed purchase before all of this happened, so my greenhouses are just filled with a lot of seedlings and I am going to be selling a lot of produce this year,” she says, adding that because of COVID-19, she has also taken her business online.

“Because of COVID I have been doing a lot more online sales and I have almost finished our website,” she says. “I was online a few years ago, just with the garlic and jarred products. But, I didn’t keep up with it and so I decided to do it again and I have started fresh."

Like many area farmers and business owners, Hard has joined the world wide web in an effort to connect to her customers during the closure.

Local market managers are also now working to apply for the Agri-Food Open for E-Business initiative, a $2.5 million grant geared for the agri-food sector that was announced last week by the federal and provincial governments, in order to help get more farmers, farmers’ markets and food hubs online.

“Both markets [Thornbury and Flesherton] will also be creating e-commerce websites fully funded by Greenbelt Farmers' Market Network,” Barnett says. “Customers will be able to pre-order and pre-pay for their products for pickup on market days. This new feature could be used on its own in the case of extreme restrictions or in combination with physical markets in the case of lighter restrictions.”

Nicholson adds that the Collingwood BIA is also working with Collingwood market vendors to access the new Collingwood Commons – a one-stop e-commerce market place for local retailers and restaurants.

“A special section is being developed for our market vendors and we are working with our vendors to be able to sell their products through this innovative platform. Further details will be released as soon as they become available,” she said.

Hard admits that while she isn’t too tech-savvy, she did manage to build a website herself and she has already received a few online orders. Her advice for other farmers or local business owners thinking about getting their products online is to keep it simple.

“It can be very simple and it doesn’t have to be expensive,” she says. “If you don’t have a domain yet, some of the web builders will give you a domain for free and you can just make a single landing page where you are able to list what you sell.”

Hard says that despite COVID-19, she thinks the market will be very busy this year.

“I think that it might be safer to buy your vegetables at the market ... because you are not crowded and there are not as many things that are going to be touched by others,” she says. “And, I have a feeling that the markets are going to also be busier this year because no one will be travelling abroad. Once the province opens up a bit more and people are allowed to travel locally again, I think the local market is going to grow a lot.”

She says that she has already seen an increase in people looking to buy seeds and start growing their own food this year, suggesting that the recent strain on the grocery stores may have shifted people’s perspectives.

“Every time something like this happens, whether it be financial hardships or contamination, it reminds people where their food really comes from,” Hard says. “I think this will make people buy local more. I think it will make people grow more. And then if they are growing more, I think it will make them appreciate how hard it is to do.”

Hard says while she did have some reservations about joining the market this year, she feels the environment can be controlled, safe and that the benefits of having the market, for both the community and local farmers, far outweigh the risks.

“Things seem to be slowing down and all we can do is take the best safety precautions we can,” she says, adding that market vendors and farmers are used to adapting and changing the way they do things, and that COVID market rules will be no different.

“Most of us alter or adjust our products and delivery methods for our customers all the time anyways. We are more than happy to make special packages or make arrangements for pick up. We are always customizing things for our customers, that is what it is all about,” she says.

The Flesherton Farmers’ Market will be celebrating 30 years in operation this season and operates at the Flesherton Arena every Saturday from May to October.

The Thornbury Farmers’ Market will be held outside of Town Hall from May to October on Sundays.

Both markets plan to open on the weekend of May 18 and are also currently accepting vendor applications.

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Jennifer Golletz

About the Author: Jennifer Golletz

Jennifer Golletz covers civic matters under the Local Journalism Initative, which is funded by the Government of Canada
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