Spring is a pivotal time for farmers and food producers who rely on direct sales. While each season comes with challenges and opportunities, spring can feel like a leap of faith. Farmers start new crops, artisan food producers plan production schedules, and they all look forward to income from the first farmers markets.
This year, COVID-19 changed how the community accesses food, including the closure of the indoor Asheville City Market and the postponement of opening days for the region’s largest outdoor markets. Understandably, farmers were distressed about where they were going to sell their products.
“They’ve got crops in the ground; they’ve already made investments; their incomes depend on these markets being open, providing them with an outlet, providing them a way to connect with the community. Not knowing where they’re going to be able to sell their products is extremely concerning for them,” says Charlie Jackson, ASAP’s executive director.
ASAP’s mission is to build healthy communities through local food, and to connect farmers with customers and the community. For more than a decade, supporting farmers markets has been an important part of that work. With the closure of the indoor market and many unknowns about upcoming spring markets, it was clear that farmers and customers needed a new plan.
“When we realized that a big part of how the community connects with farmers were these markets and that they weren’t going to be able to operate in the way that we had planned, we shifted our approach to trying to create markets and market opportunities that could operate with the need to be really careful about making sure that public health was the primary mode of operation,” he says.
In a matter of days, ASAP found a new open-air location for a community farmers market. By Saturday, the roads of A-B Tech Community College were filled with people waiting patiently in their cars for their turn to purchase local food.
Rules were in place to protect public health, including spacing vendor tables six feet apart, asking people to wait in their cars until it’s their turn to approach a table, and having all food pre-bagged or bunched.
One of the biggest challenges was finding a way for customers to pay farmers without touching cash, credit cards, or market tokens. ASAP developed a payment system where customers picked up their food at the market and paid through ASAP’s website after they left. Thanks to the support of donors and community members, ASAP arranged to reimburse farmers for any forgotten payments.
“All that was based on a trust system where we felt like if we provided the community with the opportunity to purchase from local farms, that they would go home and add up what they purchased that day, and make a payment. Our trust paid off and people did it. They came to the market, they loaded up with fresh farm products, and they went home and paid,” he said.
Over the course of the three-hour market, approximately 600 people supported local farmers and purchased farm-fresh food to sustain themselves at home.
During these difficult times, it can feel comforting to think about the community connections that are being built out of this crisis.
“It’s just so important right now that we’re making sure we’re supporting each other, that we’re keeping the local economy vibrant and strong, and that we’re able to produce food here in our communities,” he says.
ASAP plans to continue Saturday markets at A-B Tech, and is looking into establishing new weekday markets as well. The rules of the markets may change as new health information is released, so community members are encouraged to follow ASAP on social media and refer to its website for updated information at www.asapconnections.org
Aired March 30, 2020