The Errington Farmers’ Market placed signs to remind customers of social distancing protocols and other guidelines. (Araby Gillespie photo)

COVID-19: Island farmers’ markets look for ability to expand

Managers stress the importance of the events to local farmers

The Errington Farmers’ Market opened this year on a rainy Saturday (May 2) and, predictably, didn’t draw a huge crowd.

There were just 15 vendors, selling mainly food products with the market placing strict guidelines to ensure customers follow social distancing protocols due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The low turnout was not enough to dampen the spirits of vendors and farmers.

Farmer Dirk Becker explained that most markets gauge their success on the number of people that come out. But for the vendors and farmers like Becker, it’s the bottom line that counts. Did they generate income on that day or not?

“Even though there was less people, no music, no coffee shops and the yearly maypole dance, our income was similar to other markets at the same time of the year, even though it was raining,” said Becker. “And there’s two reasons for that. First of all, on busier days, a lot of people were just looking. So even though there were few people that attended, almost every single person that attended were actual shoppers and made purchases.”

Another factor is that, due to COVID-19, more people have become aware of their sources of food in general, particularly those produced locally, Becker said.

READ MORE: Farmers market operations play huge role for community

“People are now aware how it’s important that they support local food by supporting local farmers,” Becker explained.

When the coronavirus became a pandemic, farmers markets were told to close down operations. But later, federal and provincial authorities declared them an essential service, allowing them to operate. Becker said their stress levels shot up when they first learned farmers markets wouldn’t be allowed.

“We spent weeks wondering what we were going to do for income this year,” said Becker. “We were told to sell our stuff online. We work on our farms the whole day, and then we’re asked to do extra by learning to become computer-savvy and proficient with the technology required. We needed to find some kind of service or pay for it. Then we need to do all the little packaging, and either have people come to the farm at a time convenient to them or drop them off at a depot for pick up. So for me, personally, and speaking to other farmers, it was ridiculous and unreasonable.”

Strictly enforcing social distancing at the Errington market was not as challenging, said Becker. They informed customers of the guidelines online, which included not bringing their children or pets with them, keeping their distance from others, and not to hang around the market once they’d finished their purchases. Signs were also placed all over the park to remind people of the protocols in place.

“We have a lot of space because our market is held in our community park, so social distancing was very easy to do, ” said Becker, who added that being in an open-air venue may make it safer than being in a confined space like in a grocery.

Becker hopes the restrictions will ease up to allow the market to expand and sell products other than food.

“We could add soap vendors,” said Becker. “Soap is sold in groceries, and the average Canadian would argue that soap is an essential product and not to mention that soap is very important in terms of personal hygiene and reducing the spread of COVID.”

Other vendors of the Errington market, whose products are not food, and can’t take part in the market are currently selling their wares online. Visit http://www.erringtonfarmersmarket.ca/shop-online/ for details.

Meanwhile, the Qualicum Beach Farmers’ Market, which first opened on April 4, has seen a steady flow ofl customers every week. Market manager Launie Elves says customers are grateful that they’re open.

She added that health guidelines are being followed by customers and that there are plenty of space for physical distancing.

Right now, the Town of Qualicum Beach council has allowed the market to only have 20 food vendors or stalls at this time. Elves is hoping that limit would be lifted soon.

“We do have more than enough room for more vendors and physical distancing,” said Elves. “We would love to expand unfortunately the Town of Qualicum Beach, both Council and staff have put a limit on the number of vendor tents. We are hoping for a relaxation of rules so that we can have more vendors to provide a greater variety of food items and hopefully have some of our artisan and craft vendors at some point in the future. With the limitation of 20 vendors that the town has imposed it will be difficult for the market to survive.”

Launey said that is a busy time for farmers. And with only 20 vendors, she pointed that they’re selling out every weekend.

“If we had more vendors we could provide even more fresh local food to the community,” said Elves. “Supporting our local food economy is so important with limitations on the supply chain.”

Michael.Briones@pqbnews.com

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