Like many, as the pandemic rolled in, Brent Olsen felt an initial emotional plummet: “Oh my gosh, the world’s ending here.” His family business Olsen Farms in Colville, Washington raises grass-fed beef, lamb, and pork, as well as various potatoes. About half of that he sells directly through Seattle farmers markets (and a couple in Spokane). Much of the rest goes to higher-end Seattle restaurants, which have been closed or are doing limited business since quarantines began.
Soon he started thinking of options. Between the Canlis drive-thru's burgers and fries and the farmers markets, where people would probably be stocking up and wanting to shop outdoors, Olsen figured he might be okay. “I thought no-brainer that we're essential in the food chain here.” Then he got a call. On March 13, mayor Jenny Durkan suspended permitted events in Seattle for a month. Farmers markets were lumped in with “cultural events and street events like block parties.”
Markets, though, are different. Governor Jay Inslee’s executive orders—including this week’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy”—have consistently deemed farmers markets, and the farms that supply them, “essential.” The USDA has deferred to local lawmakers. Elsewhere, even in places hit hard by coronavirus, like New York and the Bay Area, markets have continued, with new guidelines.
Yet now the livelihoods of many local farmers, who already run tight-margin businesses, are in jeopardy. And the repercussions of Durkan’s order—especially if it’s extended beyond April 13—could ripple further into the food systems. Why should farms be added to the economic losses? Markets do the same thing as grocery stores—except outside, with greater flexibility, smaller supply chains, fewer surfaces to contaminate. At a moment when immunity is at issue, we should not be limiting access to healthy food.
Jennifer Antos—executive director of Seattle’s Neighborhood Farmers Markets (NFM), whose seven local markets include University District and Capitol Hill—said the ban likely stems from perceptions of markets as social events: all the buskers and street food, the casual weekend bonhomie. That’s more of “an ancillary benefit,” she said. About 70 percent of NFM’s 200-ish vendors are farms, and the markets are fundamentally about feeding people. Some of those people think supporting sustainable farms directly is important. Some use programs like Fresh Bucks, which matches SNAP/EBT payments dollar for dollar, or use the food banks that markets support, which have seen drops in overall donations, even as need escalates.
On March 20, NFM released an open letter, asking the city to designate markets essential and to put in place new sanitation and distancing guidelines, adding handwashing stations, adding chalk lines to ensure six-feet distances, spacing vendors further apart, banning sampling or even prepared foods, canceling entertainment, and educating market-goers.
When I reached out to the mayor’s office for an interview, I received an emailed statement: “Farmers markets, while they are a treasured resource, also attract large crowds of people who often come into close contact with each other…. The City wants to make sure these organizations have all the information and guidance necessary to implement mandatory public health guidance on social distancing.” The statement notes the Small Business Stabilization Fund as a possible resource. But farms are not eligible, since they aren't based in Seattle. I followed up, asking why the city's ban differs from Inslee’s orders and when the markets might reopen, but have not heard back.
I interviewed five farmers for this piece. Business has already been affected, but most figured they could recover from a month-long market closure. In early spring when new crops aren’t flourishing, only about half of NFM’s farmers are selling in markets. But an uncertain future is more destabilizing. Present Tense Farm in Monroe sells about 60 percent of its produce to restaurants like Manolin and Altura (both currently closed) and the other 40 percent at markets in Magnolia and West Seattle between April and December. Right now, like many farms, owner Neil Subhash said he and his partner would be hiring staff, buying supplies and seeds, planting for the season. Instead, he’s put that on hold, fearing for his farm’s future. They’ve spent 10 years building the business. “And it took about 10 days for us to feel like it was all unraveling.”
Genine Bradwin and her husband run the 60-acre Kirsop Farm in Rochester, which gets 75 percent of its income through markets (typical for farms that sell through the markets). When she heard about the closure, “we instantly had a panic,” she said. She started wholesaling to any store she could, netting only a third of what she’d make at the market.
Some stopgaps are out there. NFM runs the Good Farmer Fund, which provides emergency relief. PCC Community Markets is redirecting $80,000 to buy from market farms and sending the goods to food banks. And stimulus might be on the horizon. The American Farmland Trust is calling on congress to include market farmers in its plan, based on a study that estimates losses of $1.3 billion nationally by the end of May. Apparently, congress's $2 trillion plan earmarks $350 billion for small business, but that appears to come in the form of loans, and those farms I spoke with were hesitant, if not unwilling, to take on debt.
So far, what’s keeping many solvent, and hopeful, is their own resilience.
Last weekend, from the backs of trucks, I bought a dozen eggs and five pounds of root vegetables, like cartons of filched cigarettes in Goodfellas. I put my credit card in Square readers and pulled it out myself, touching no screens. Everywhere: Purell, gloves, Clorox wipes, goods proffered from gloved hands. The transactions felt, given the circumstances, pleasingly austere, quite sanitary. A few other trucks were set up, brandishing RCW 36.71.090, a law allowing farmers to peddle their produce and eggs without a license. Small lines of customers accumulated, giving each other space.
Ghost markets like this have cropped up as temporary solutions: a few vendors, hawking products from tables and trucks. Others have found different ways forward. Bradwin says she’s focused on expanding Kirsop’s CSA program. Olsen Farms now delivers. So does Stokesberry Sustainable Farm. Owner Janelle Stokesberry told me over the phone that she quickly pivoted to also selling her eggs at La Pasta, Zylberschtein’s Delicatessen and Bakery, and Sea Wolf bakery.
Still, Stokesberry said, egg sales have dropped 30 percent, and she supports reopening the markets. “I just don't think that the people in charge have had time to think about it nor understand how well the markets can be run or have been run.” She mentioned how adaptable farmers are, since their work involves thinking on the fly.
At the end of the call, I asked Stokesberry if she wanted to add anything. “Talking about it,” she said, “it's hard because it doesn't make sense. But I've been so busy just trying to deal with how to work around a silly decision that I haven't had time to process it emotionally. And sitting down and talking about it, it’s hard…. We don't want to think too far in the future because it's too overwhelming.”