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'No farmers, no food' | Local farmers markets stay open despite virus

WUSA-TV Washington, D.C. logo WUSA-TV Washington, D.C. 3/28/2020 John Henry

Do not be surprised if you see your local farmers market open for business this weekend.

Officials in Maryland, D.C. and Virginia have all released guidelines that allow for farmers markets to continue their operations.

In the District, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office has declared farmers markets as “essential businesses” during the COVID-19 spread.

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“Farmers markets are a great way to support local farmers in this period of economic uncertainty, and your support can help decrease the high demand currently placed on grocery store stocks,” a District website reads.

In D.C., government officials have encouraged farmers markets to suspend the offering of samples. They also want vendors to thoroughly sanitize their facilities.

The Maryland Department of Agriculture is on the same page as D.C.

In Maryland, farmers markets are also considered essential businesses.

“Farmers markets play a critical role in providing fresh, nutritious and locally-produced food products to customers across the state – especially those Marylanders who live in food deserts and those who rely on SNAP benefits to access fresh produce,” said Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Joe Bartenfelder. “It is important that we keep that supply line open while making sure we implement the same preventative measures used in grocery stores and other essential retail businesses.”

In Maryland, local officials have also urged farmers markets to promote social distancing and to consider operational changes that can reduce the possibility for coronavirus infection.

The Takoma Park Farmers Market wrote on its Facebook page that it is asking families to only send one person to the market instead of coming as a group. The market has also worked to get customers to consider pre-order options from some vendors.

In Virginia, there was initially some confusion as to how farmers markets would be allowed to proceed.

On March 23, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued Executive Order 53, which mandated that all dining establishments cease their operations, with exceptions for takeout and delivery orders.

Jewel Bronaugh, commissioner of Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, later clarified in an official letter that farmers markets were not included as a part of the order.

“A mobile market could be used to reach communities with low food access but should comply with social distancing guidelines for customers shopping and follow all recommended hygiene and sanitation protocols Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services [VDACS] and the Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry will do all that we can to support farmers markets and keep fresh, healthy foods available to communities throughout the Commonwealth,” Bronaugh wrote.

She added farmers markets should follow specific guidance offered by her department.

It included suggestions for farmers markets to create systems for customers to order ahead, establish onsite processes to take orders that would discourage customers from browsing and touching food, and promote no touch or low-touch buying opportunities by having vendors pre-box or pre-bag items.

Ruth and Don Owens are the respective marketing and outreach coordinators of the Loudoun Valley Homegrown Markets Cooperative. The cooperative runs five farmers markets in Northern Virginia, including the popular Leesburg farmers market on Saturdays.

The Owenses said people are still showing up to their market to support farmers and local businesses. They said they have seen a recent increase in interest in their newsletter.

"All of a sudden, people want to know [what is happening], because we put out lists of vendors and if they're going to be there," Don Owens said.

The Owenses said their cooperative is requiring all vendors to wear gloves. They have also forbidden customers from handling food items.

"We also cordon off the market,” Don Owens said. “We have caution tape that goes all the way around the market so people can only enter through one location."

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Some vendors are also relying on pre-order sales. Don Owens said he is working with a company in Richmond to make the practice more accessible across the Commonwealth. However, Ruth Owens said online vending can still prove to be problematic for some farmers.

"A lot of our farmers, they're wonderful people,” she said. “But, they focus on the farm. So, they're not all technologically savvy.”

Either way, the Owenses still believe their farmers markets are providing an essential service.

“No farmers, no food,” Ruth Owens said.

According to the CDC, in general, there is thought to be very low risk of the coronavirus being spread due to food products or their packaging due to the virus' low survivability on surfaces.

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