Vermont farmers markets must close due to coronavirus outbreak, season’s future unclear

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Add farmers markets and their patrons to the growing list of people affected by restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following Gov. Phil Scott’s announcement Friday that he would extend his State of Emergency order through May 15, the state’s Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets issued guidance specifically for the operation of farmers markets.

The blunt version? Don’t open.

Agriculture secretary Anson Tebbetts penned the clarification after farmers markets lobbied in recent weeks to be considered essential businesses — like grocery stores and CSAs. But the markets are still not permitted under the governor’s order.

More: Farmers markets in Vermont lobby to remain open

“Having said that, the State and many of its wonderful farmers markets have been discussing potential mechanisms for markets to operate during this public health crisis, and we expect to allow some form of a farmers market in the very near future,” Tebbetts wrote.

The state has more than 50 farmers markets during the spring and summer months, according to the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) of Vermont, and at least 10 that traditionally run through the winter.

More: Governor: Coronavirus threat will keep Vermont locked down through May 15

“Farmers can and should sell food through farm stands (with appropriate social

distancing), online food sales, phone orders, curbside pick-up, and delivery,” Tebbetts wrote. 

CSAs, he said, are also explicitly listed as a critical service and “it is important that they continue as mechanisms for connecting consumers with local food. The goal is to maintain local food production and supply while preventing the person-to-person contact that spreads the coronavirus.”

The conflicting directions

The long-running, year-round Vermont Farmers Market held its last session “for the foreseeable future” on Saturday, Paul Horton, the market’s president, wrote on the organization’s site Thursday.

Until then, the Rutland market had operated tentatively each week due to conflicting guidance from the state. 

Horton’s appeal to the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) to remain open had been granted on March 28, Horton wrote. The Vermont Farmers Market could continue limited in-person operations as long as it utilized the appropriate healthy and safety measures.

Shortly after, though, the Agency of Agriculture said the ACCD’s determination was not final — farmers markets were, in fact, ordered closed, Horton wrote. Further interactions with the state on April 3 made clear that future operation was unlikely.

The Vermont Farmers Market has since opened an online market portal to facilitate curbside delivery of goods that would have normally been procured at its weekly event.

How markets have responded

The speed and degree of compliance have varied across the state.

► The Burlington Farmers Market has been suspended since March 12. Earlier this week it announced June 6 as its target date to open for the summer season.

More: Burlington Farmers Market closed until further notice due to coronavirus

► The Bennington Farmers Marketpioneered a pre-order and drive-through service that it operated from March 21 through April 4. It posted on social media that it would not operate Saturday as it had been.

► The Middlebury Farmers Market has not convened since March 21. Its Facebook page directs people to contact vendors offering alternative arrangements.

► The Capital City Farmers Market in Montpelier scrapped its plans for a limited operation on Saturday. Vendors were encouraged to deliver pre-orders or distribute them as planned while seeing to safe distancing, pre-packaging all goods and sanitized payment options.

NOFA said it would support a proposal, starting as soon as possible, that allowed markets to operate “under drastically modified conditions” and adhere to the safety measures required by the state.

“it is critical that our farmers markets be allowed to continue providing direct access to locally produced, nutritious foods,” NOFA wrote, “in a way that provides access for community members who rely on SNAP benefits, while also supporting the livelihoods of local farmers and food businesses.

“These objectives are especially important during the COVID-19 crisis to ensure a steady, reliable food supply to keep all Vermonters fed, thereby preventing an additional public health crisis.”

Contact Austin Danforth at 651-4851 or edanforth@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @eadanforth.

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