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In Pandemic Era, Farmers Meet Consumers, But Don't Call It A Market

People wear cloth face coverings outside a brick building, next to a truck and plastic bins.
John Dillon
Barre farmer Alan LePage came with wild leeks and a face mask to the site of Montpelier's Capital City Farmers Market.

Farmers met consumers at the Capital City Farmers Market in Montpelier Saturday despite an order from Gov. Phil Scott that markets like these should remain closed to mitigate the risk of spreading the new coronavirus.

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Neither the farmers nor their customers were committing acts of civil disobedience in defiance of the governor’s order. The state gave farmers permission late Friday to deliver pre-ordered sales of their produce, meat and cheese. Mask-wearing buyers – standing apart from others at a safe distance – seemed delighted to buy some fresh, locally raised food.

“It’s a great time to support the local farmers,” said Renee Kievit-Kylar of East Montpelier. “And it’s an adventure! I got to leave the house for a reason, which was really exciting. And it keeps me from crying all the time.”

"It's a great time to support the local farmers... I got to leave the house for a reason, which was really exciting. And it keeps me from crying all the time." — Renee Kievit-Kylar, East Montpelier

Farmers were also pleased by the chance to show that they can make a version of the market work while protecting public health. Hannah Blackmer serves as the Montpelier market's board president and grows produce at her family’s Field Stone Farm in Northfield. She said this is a lean time of year for many producers, and with cash flow tight, early season sales are essential.

“A lot of farms are gearing up for the summer, so they’re purchasing their fertilizers, purchasing their seed, calving and buying feed,” she said. “And there’s not a lot of cash flow… So I think for a lot of farmers it’s a critical point, not only in that way, but also to ensure that they are maintaining their customer base into a more profitable time of year."

The direction from the state about how and if markets could open has been somewhat confusing. Markets were initially not deemed essential servicessuch as grocery stories or gas stations, so under the governor’s emergency order, they were to remain closed.

More from VPR: Gov. Extends State Of Emergency, Stay-At-Home Order, Until May 15

Then last Thursday, a state agriculture agency official told a Senate committee that markets would be allowed to open soon, and that the state was developing guidelines. That decision was apparently reversed, when Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts issued guidance Friday afternoon that said markets should still stay closed.

That ruling was later clarified – at least in Montpelier’s case – to allow the pre-ordered purchases to be picked up at a central location.

“So lots of communication, lots of trying to interpret different language that’s been released,” Blackmer said. “Farmers want to feed people; that’s what we’re here to do. And people want to be fed. So we’re going to make that work however we can.”

"Farmers want to feed people; that's what we're here to do. And people want to be fed. So we're going to make that work however we can." — Hannah Blackmer, Field Stone Farm

Blackmer offered a clarification of her own: “This is not a farmers market. This is a farmers pick-up site.”

Markets in Bennington and Dorset have also staged drive-through events for people who have pre-ordered food.
John Snell, a Montpelier resident and consumer representative on the Montpelier market board, said that with their strict social distancing rules, markets are just as safe as grocery stories.

“If that’s what they’re afraid of, then we don’t have to be afraid here,” he said. “I went to the Shaw’s [supermarket] last night. And they’ve done quite a bit, but I’ll tell you, it’s not better than this at all. And the food here is way better.”

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But Gov. Phil Scott maintains that traditional farmers markets – with their many tables or stands catering to shoppers – can pose a greater risk of spreading the new coronavirus than grocery stores.

"They aren’t the same, because you have individuals who are selling maybe two or three at one individual station selling their product," the governor said at a news conference last week. "And then you have another one just 20 feet down, two or three people, selling again just to an individual. Whereas in a grocery store, you have probably one person for every 50 or 100 people."

That’s not how this market operated. Snell says state officials, including Agriculture Secretary Anson Tebbetts, should look at the precautions used for the weekend pre-order pickup.

"I would love it if both Anson Tebbetts and the legal staff from ag [The Agriculture Agency] would be here today and see the extent to which we’ve gone to be safe," he said.

Barre farmer Alan LePage had foraged some early wild leeks and was selling pre-orders Saturday to select customers. He won’t divulge his secret spot, other than it’s on a southeast slope that always sprouts the wild alliums early. He does have opinions about closing markets at a time when farmers like him need the sales the most.

“Maybe it’s just not that important,” he said. “But if it’s not, then I’m not sure why it’s so important, for instance, for a liquor store to be open. I can’t figure the logic, to be honest.”

Update April 13, 2020, 8:42 pm: Post was updated to include comment from Gov. Phil Scott and information on drive-through markets in Dorset and Bennnington.

John worked for VPR in 2001-2021 as reporter and News Director. Previously, John was a staff writer for the Sunday Times Argus and the Sunday Rutland Herald, responsible for breaking stories and in-depth features on local issues. He has also served as Communications Director for the Vermont Health Care Authority and Bureau Chief for UPI in Montpelier.
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