Regional Farmers’ Markets survive and thrive during the 2020 summer of COVID-19

Shirley's Farmers' Market on California Ave, Reno, NV, October 3, 2020 - photo: Anthony Postman/the Ally

Our area’s largest farmers’ market, Shirley’s Farmers’ Markets, just wrapped up a little over a week ago. With bustling locations bookending Reno, one at Tamarack Junction, and another at the Village Shopping Center on California Street, the 2020 markets successfully served fans of fresh, farm-direct produce through the summer months, running from the first weekend in June through the first weekend in October. 

The final market day saw vendors and shoppers sporting little stickers that read “I Survived Farmers’ Market 2020.”

“This has been more challenging for the farmers than any other season I can possibly remember,” remarked market manager Pat Sponsler. 

Farmers had new mandates to follow this year, with social distancing, which was aided by tape marks on the parking lot to help maintain six foot spacing while in line. 

Farmers also had to adhere to a no-handle policy on behalf of the customers, meaning farmers and their staff selected all the produce for customers. Although this was an added challenge for customers used to picking their own produce, and getting in line to cash-out, it was especially difficult for the farmers, most of whom doubled their staffing to keep up with long lines of typically patient customers.

“The [Washoe County Health Department] mandated that farmers can’t touch customers’ bags because we don’t know if they may have been exposed to COVID. So it’s got to go through a process: pick the stuff, put it in a plastic bag, take the money, then give the plastic bag to the customer. The customer can at that point in time choose to leave it in the bag or transfer to a reusable bag. But the vendors could not touch a bag that you might bring into the market.”

I asked where the mandate for plastic use came from, and Sponsler clarified that it wasn’t actually plastic bags that were mandated, per se: what was mandated was no contact between customers and farmers’ goods, as stated above. It’s just that plastic bags were the easiest conveyance to assure contact-minimized transactions.

“We have one vendor that uses old boxes and puts everything in the box, and then you give it back [or can take away the whole box],” Pat said. I asked one of my farmers if I could dump the produce from the plastic bag they weighed into my own bags, and they said ‘Sure!’

“But I was chagrined to recognize that once I had handled the bag, it was considered used at that point. 

Where to take plastic bags for recycling, and what happens to them at that point is a different story.

Prema Farms handed produce fresh from their table directly to customers, letting them sift goods into their own bags, or into plastic bags already accrued from other stands. Their simple approach fostered re-use without adding more plastic into the shopping equation; and still minimized contact at the check-out point.

Regular farmers’ market shoppers enjoy the fact that their food is coming directly from regional farms, and presented in the open-air. And unlike the supermarkets, where produce may have been handled by any number of shoppers, food handling at the farmers’ market is very specific.

“Customers have been able to point and pick and still enjoy the fact that they’re getting fresh produce that nobody else has touched except the farmer,” says Sponsler. “Thankfully, the public is putting up with this. I think that they’re just so in love with the quality and the level of the produce that they can get that they’re willing to do it. But all of us are looking forward to COVID-19 being a bad dream from the past.”

“Pat and Shirley Sponsler, managers of Shirley’s Farmers’ Markets. Pat manages the Village Farmers’ Market, while Shirley oversees The Tamarack Junction Farmers’ Market – image: Anthony Postman/the Ally

The dedication of the market shoppers is surpassed only by the dedication of the farmers themselves. Rodriguez Farms come in weekly from Watsonville, meaning 10+ hours round-trip. But the demand for their strawberries merits the driving. On the last day of market, Rodriquez sold 92 cases of strawberries by 9:45 AM.

Sponsler spoke about their process and care raising the berries. 

“There’s a whole big process of how you plant the plants; how you nurture the plants; how you take care of the plants. And then when you’re done picking, you have to run them up here to get the kind of quality that’s this fresh. It’ demands that you’re picking 24 to 36 hours prior to the market.

“Tomatoes from the market are different from tomatoes in a store. They’re not greenhouse gassed, they don’t turn pink in the store, or red in the store because they were picked green. They were picked two days ago, one day ago. So this is what’s driving people to get the high quality nutrition, the great flavor.”

Food samples were noticeably absent this summer, a compelling and effective sales incentive. Who can resist perfectly ripe peaches offered for your approval? Stuffed olives, or amazing wild-caught smoked salmon? 

“I would say that they’re the thing that really hurt this year was we were forced to not sample… that stopped quite as much the volume [of] sales, because it’s awfully hard to eat a piece of peach and then not want one, right? It just tastes really good. Same thing with a strawberry—Anything that you’re tasting. That’s a stone fruit. You’re going to go: ‘Yes, that’s above and beyond what I expected, so now I want it!’”

With the health department mandate that all pre-prepared foods be sealed in plastic (or glass, in the case of olives and liquids like balsamic vinegar and olive oil). For Freshway Fish, this meant that smoked salmon could no longer be chosen from the case, with a little chunk broken off for you to try, and then individually wrapped for you in aluminum foil. 

Although it may have made for a slower start to grab new customers early in the market season, once customers took their chance to try the product, they were hooked—Freshway Fish ended up selling 30 pounds of smoked salmon in just under two hours at the final market.

Stuff-It Olives on the other hand, hit a bump in their road when—on top of not being able to share samples of their artisan balsamic vinegars, olives and olive oils, and the newest addition to their line, beef jerky—their supply chain ran short. 

Bob from Stuff-It told me early in the season that if I wanted my favorite habanero-stuffed olives, to order all that I wanted, because after what he had on the table in front of us, there were no more stuffed olives in production. 

The final ender for his season was the fact that the cases of his products still in production were delayed in shipping. Those that he expected to deliver were already pre-sold; so he would not have enough product to bring to the market, having to close-out about a month early.

Pat Sponsler addressed both his desire to see more niche vendors like Stuff-It Olives, but also the challenges they face: “I really would love to have a cheese person full time. I would love to have a live mushroom person full time, or somebody that can do both…It’s like artisan type stuff. But it’s niche market stuff: so you have to be committed to it…in a way [where] you’re willing to not make quite as much as like a stone fruit person that also has tomatoes, corn, beans, because they have a lot more offerings, you know, they can sell more.” 

Even with an estimated total weekly market revenue hovering between $37K-$40K, Sponsler estimates that the total volume of this year’s market was still down 20-25 percent, with smoke from West Coast fires partly to blame. 

Still, last Saturday, Pat was upbeat and optimistic.

“This has been a wonderful close … you can see quite a good-sized crowd. And everybody’s doing really well at sales. I always like to have the last day be something special for the customers and the vendors. That makes everybody want to come back and start off next year. You know, again, so it’s, I couldn’t ask for more perfect temperature, no smoke in the sky. No wind. It’s fantastic.”

[Riverside Farmers’ Market continues on Saturdays (at the McKinley Arts Center) into the cold months, featuring Reno-area-specific local produce and niche vendors—well worth checking out. And Amber Oaks Berry Farms continue their farmstand offerings every Wednesday and Saturday in front of House of Bread, in Reno’s Village Shopping Center.]


Anthony Postman writes about agriculture, sustainability and the environment for the Ally. Support his work.