HELENA — Farmers’ markets play a valuable role in many Montana communities.
They provide a chance for customers to find local and fresh food or other locally made items, and are a key income source for many businesses.
“For us right now it’s huge,” said Kelly Calman, Owner of Northern Lights Farm. “We’ve been really trying to diversify our market, who we’re selling to. We have a few restaurants that we sell to, we also do a home delivery service, but farmer’s markets are at least a third of our income.”
Calman concerns are a similar theme you’ll hear from other market vendors, how can they adapt to COVID?
Some vendors have moved to digital sales or are selling from their home.
Sunflower Bakery had traditionally sold at farmers’ markets. As a result of the pandemic, they created online ordering and a subscription service for patrons.
“That’s been okay,” said Kate McLean of Sunflower Bakery. “Our sales have been about comparable to last year whereas normally we would see growth. We’ve seen growth every year for the last five years.”
Farmers’ market vendors tend to be smaller operations. Many don’t have store fronts and rely on the market and one-on-one interactions to get their product in front of people.
The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated those interactions.
The Helena Farmers’ Market has shut down for the year over Lewis and Clark Public Health (LCPH) COVID requirements.
Danette McIntosh of McIntosh Gardens says not having farmers’ markets ultimately hurts the community.
“It really hurt not having the downtown market,” said McIntosh. “Not just the vendors, but those that are used to going downtown to get their food and take their little Saturday walk.”
“It’s really sad,” McLean told MTN. “It was hard to see the Saturday one shut down.”
Just last week, the Capitol Square Farmers Market had to close early due to reaching the LCPH’s COVID restriction of 250 people at an event.
When a market shuts down, there are economic repercussions that fall on the shoulders of vendors.
“[Last week] we went home with a lot of products,” said Calman. “Today I dumped probably $150 worth of microgreens into the compost pile because I didn’t have a market for them.”
“It was a lot of food we didn’t know what to do with,” noted McIntosh. “We were finding new ways of who wants it, the neighbors chickens or till it under now before it gets too big and we’re attached to it.”
After closing under two hours of being open last week, the Capitol Square Farmers Market staff began brainstorming. They wanted to keep the market running for vendors and customers, while following all COVID heath rules.
On August 4, they implemented their hybrid market that includes a drive-thru option.
The first hour was dedicated to elderly and other at risk shoppers, followed by traditional farmers market shopping opportunities.
Masks and social distancing were required of all attendees, and hand washing stations were available.
Once the market reached 250 shoppers, they transitioned to a drive-thru market that allowed people to get goods without ever leaving their car.
General Services Administrator Steve Baiamonte thought the inaugural drive-thru market went well for it being their first time.
Vendors MTN spoke with said they were just happy to have the opportunity to offer their products to customers they may have missed otherwise.
“It’s a huge impact and we’re very grateful to [Market Manager Julia Gustafson] and the whole crew up here at the Capitol Square Farmers Market because they’ve been super innovative,” said Calman.
“I’m really grateful for the management for being creative and coming up with solutions and negotiating with the health department,” said McLean.
A big part of COVID era farmers’ markets are changing the mentality of them being a social space. People like speaking with vendors about their products and uses.
McIntosh says it’s been odd to get out of that mindset, but it’s been just one more thing people have adapted to during the pandemic.
“Customers are willing to shop new ways, I am realizing that,” said McIntosh. “The market managers are working with the county to set it up so it is a win win for everyone.”
The Capitol Square Farmers Market is run as a partnership by the Montana Department of Administration and the Montana Department of Agriculture. The market posts their vendors every week on their website.