By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]
Every Saturday, the Old Town Farmers’ Market, located at 301 King St., teems with people looking to fill their grocery bags and socialize with friends. Market Square transforms into a patchwork quilt of multi-colored tents, each one offering a different medley of local products and free samplers, while patrons shop for everything from butternut squash to handcrafted ceramics. A trip to the farmers’ market, year round and regardless of weather, is a natural part of the weekend for many vendors and consumers alike.
“[There’s] a sense of community we’ve built here,” David Argento, owner and operator of Papa’s Market, said on one particularly gray December morning. It had been raining heavily and the wind kept some people indoors, but Argento’s offerings still dwindled significantly by the market’s conclusion – a successful day, by any measure.
“All of our clients are our friends, some of them very close friends,” Argento added. “We’re in better touch now, and we’ve been able to get closer over the past few years.”
This is notable amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, when, now almost two years in, many businesses continue to struggle with sales and retention.
Virginia farmers’ markets have also had to adapt, creating an online presence, offering prepackaged orders and sending newsletters to educate and bond with clients. Some vendors said these changes will remain in place after COVID-19 subsides.
Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced its allocation of $90.2 million to strengthen market opportunities for local and regional food businesses, $652,940 of which will go to the Virginia Farmers’ Market Association.
While these changes have largely proven to be a boon overall, they came to vendors with both a financial and emotional price tag.
The scramble to adapt
When Argento heard from the city back in March 2020 that the pandemic was rapidly spreading and vendors would not be able to operate as they were previously doing, he wasn’t prepared.
“We were looking forward to a growth year, things had been getting better and better, and then I got word on my way down here Friday night with a truck full of stuff that we couldn’t sell anything the next week,” Argento said. “I didn’t have a clue what we were gonna do.”
Unlike in places such as California and Washington D.C., Virginia did not require farmers’ markets to have a state permit in order to operate. The legally binding document states that participating markets are effectively following state-mandated protocols.
“When COVID hit, those states were able to deem farmers’ markets essential right out of the gate because they recognized that farmers’ markets were essential for food access,” Kim Hutchinson, VAFMA executive director, said. “In Virginia, that didn’t exist … so [Gov. Ralph Northam] was concerned with deeming us essential [because] there was no controlling mechanism to oversee that the markets were complying with the state.”
The fact that agriculture is the number one private industry in Virginia punctuated the importance of farmers’ markets in the state.
“[The government] wanted this to work; they just wanted guarantees that there were going to be controls in place,” Hutchinson said.
After VAFMA committed that farmers’ markets would adhere strictly to safety protocols and provide “core items” in the realm of agriculture, horticulture and hygiene, the state eventually allowed them to reopen – but only through online orders.
Like many vendors, Argento did not have much of an online presence at the time, making web orders and prepackaged boxes next to impossible. So, he got to work. Because Papa’s Market had been serving organic vegetables, honey and artisan pasta to Alexandria for 32 years – with Argento’s father operating the stand before him – over time it amassed a stable rotation of regulars, many of whom showed up on Saturday morning wondering how they would continue buying from Papa’s.
“What I did was I came down that day and I sat on the curb where our spot used to be right over there on the street and collected everybody’s emails,” Argento said. “I was like, ‘What am I gonna do? This isn’t our business model.’ [But] I made a little list of what we had, said, ‘Send me a note and I’ll make an order.’”
Around that time, John Arnold lost his job as an executive chef in the area and was looking for work. He knew Argento because he used to order ingredients from Papa’s for his restaurants, so when the pandemic hit he decided to reach out.
“[Argento’s] whole mission shifted as well, and he needed help figuring out how to get that together correctly,” Arnold said. “When I reached out and asked him, ‘Hey, do you need help?’ he said, ‘Yeah, really bad. How do we do this?’”
Another Alexandria vendor, Ana Garcia, recalled the learning curve involved in single handedly shifting her presence to online for pre-orders so she could continue selling at the market, per the statewide mandate.
Originally from Quito, Ecuador, Garcia is the owner of Ana’s Twist, which specializes in traditional Ecuadorian empanadas, soups and sorbets. Because English is Garcia’s second language, she said this presented an obstacle when it came time to build her website through website hosting site GoDaddy.
“I called them to get Spanish help, so they were telling me what to do,” Garcia said. “It was difficult at the beginning because I don’t like to work too much on the computer, but I had to do it and when I had questions I called them again, again, again, and I made it.”
As the pandemic wore on, what began as vendors jumping into survival mode steadily morphed into them stretching, acclimating and even embracing new business models.
Argento started creating a monthly newsletter to educate patrons on what exactly goes into their products, inform them of the goings on at Papa’s and generally create a sense of connection during a period of isolation for many people. The newsletter was an immediate hit, and Argento has no plans to stop it anytime soon.
Additionally, much of Papa’s demographic consists of an older clientele, so during the pandemic the business began bringing pre-packaged boxes to the doors of those unable to pick up their orders. He plans to continue this service indefinitely, too.
“We’ve created this community thing, and it’s fun. The genie is out of the bottle. To undo it all – I don’t have any desire to do that,” Argento said.
While Garcia considers herself innovative and creative by nature, she also said the pandemic played a role in inspiring the recent introduction of new products such as tamales, multi-colored empanadas, Ecuadorian spicy salsa and myriad gluten-free options.
“It was a good time for me to introduce new products, new ideas,” Garcia said. “Most of the people are still working at home, so they are bored to keep ordering the same stuff. They feel excited [and say], ‘I can’t go out, but at least I can try something new.’”
An indelible mark
The success of vendor adaptation efforts is reflected in statewide numbers. According to Hutchinson, VAFMA’s markets experienced a 35% to 40% retention rate of new customers garnered during the pandemic, which continues to be the case as 2021 comes to a close. Many of the organization’s 350 markets experienced a 300% to 500% surge in overall sales.
But Hutchinson was also quick to point out that this figure, while positive, was not a net increase in profits, as vendors had to also pay higher prices for labor, production time and online infrastructure.
The newly approved USDA grant, which VAFMA applied for earlier this year, will help to “professionalize” Virginia’s farmers’ markets, Hutchinson said.
“There’s a need for this … there’s a need for farmers’ markets to be recognized as the credible business that it is,” Hutchinson said.
Of the new grant, $163,235 will help establish the Virginia Certified Farmers’ Market System, totaling $816,175 overall for Virginia’s farmers’ markets. The program aims to increase profitability for market vendors through the implementation of state guidelines and promote confidence in consumers that participating markets follow best industry practices.
“It’s making sure the market managers, the market staff and the vendors are not only meeting the state criteria regarding food safety and stuff, but they’ve been inspected, they’ve gone through a variety of training,” Hutchinson said.
It will also ensure that in events like a pandemic, vendors will automatically be able to sell, and consumers won’t have to worry about those defying safety regulations.
“I was receiving thousands of phone calls and emails a week [from] farmers freaking out because they had food they wanted to sell [and didn’t know] where they could sell it,” Hutchinson said. “And then customers were calling and complaining because somebody was at a market not wearing a mask. … Having a system in place to recognize what is being done well is appreciated and will benefit everybody.”
VAFMA expects to launch the program in early spring.
Hutchinson said the significance of farmers markets is shifting into the limelight and that although the COVID-19 pandemic brought on a host of challenges, it also resulted in education among consumers on the markets’ importance.
“As terrible as COVID was, it really was a turning point and helped to open the eyes of consumers to the value of buying local and having access to all the beautiful products that our community produces,” Hutchinson said.
According to Hutchinson, the average dollar amount spent at farmers markets rose from $26 to more than $100 during the last year. The sense of community that used to bring people to the markets is still intact, she said, but the appreciation beneath it is much richer now.
“It was kind of an event, like ‘Hey, let’s go to the farmers’ market on Saturday and check out all the vendors and listen to music,’ and you can still do that, but now it’s more about, ‘Let’s go and buy all of our produce, get what we need for the week, and then we can grab something hot, sit on a bench and eat it,’” Hutchinson said. “[People] see what the reality is of a farmers’ market to a community and to them, and they value it more.”