Farmers Markets Are Essential—And So Are the Policy Relationships They Hold

By: Ben Feldman       Posted On: August 4, 2020

Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Commissioner of Agriculture, Thom Peterson competing in a 2019 National Farmers Market Week corn shucking competition.

*This post was originally published on National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s blog on July 30th, 2020 in celebration of National Farmers Market Week*

No matter how you look at it, 2020 has been a challenging and uncertain year to be in the farmers market business. The impacts of COVID-19 were felt hard and fast by farmers markets in the initial phase of the response to the virus. Farmers market operators, State Associations, and the Farmers Market Coalition (FMC) threw themselves into the fight to keep farmers markets open as we all struggled to keep up with changing information, inconsistent guidance, and evolving customer attitudes. While grocery stores and other food and agricultural infrastructure was deemed essential, farmers markets were overlooked despite their herculean efforts and drastic operational changes to make farmers markets among the safest places to shop. The farmers market sector has now largely moved into a second phase of COVID-19 response, where markets confront the realities of operating week-in, week-out with the presence of the virus. And those realities are concerning. As farmers market operators grapple with increased costs and declining income, many wonder whether they will survive the pandemic. Next week marks the 21st annual National Farmers Market Week, which provides us an important opportunity to reflect on the essential nature of farmers markets and the importance of strong partnerships and support networks. 

One clear lesson of COVID-19 is that farmers market organizations that had the capacity to build strong relationships with their elected officials were better positioned to make their needs known, ensure that markets were listed among essential businesses, and keep their farmers markets open. Take Minnesota for example: when Governor Tim Walz issued an executive order on March 16th closing bars, restaurants, and other public gathering places, the Minnesota Farmers Market Association (MFMA) acted quickly. MFMA’s Executive Director, Kathy Zeman, got on the phone with Minnesota’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Thom Peterson, to clarify that the closure order was not intended to cover farmers markets. Thanks to this direct line of communication and prompt response, MFMA was able to issue clarification the next day to their member farmers market organizations that farmers’ markets were in fact essential and exempt from the closure order. This clarity was key for farmers and farmers market operators in Minnesota at a critical time in the season. 

“COVID-19 starkly highlighted the benefit of MFMA’s productive working relationship with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). Farmers markets were deemed essential from the very beginning, due to MDA Commissioner of Agriculture Thom Petersen’s deep knowledge of all Minnesota agriculture,” said Zeman. “MDA pivoted to all things COVID-19, assigning staff to supporting farmers markets and our vendors. We worked together as a team to develop health safety guidelines that fit farmers markets, our vendors, and our shoppers. MDA staff joined our statewide weekly Zoom calls to offer support and clarification. MFMA is greatly appreciative of the leadership and support offered by MDA to keep our farmers markets operating safely for our vendors and our customers.” 

But the relationship between MFMA and the Minnesota officials didn’t happen overnight. Strong working relationships between state officials and farmers market organizations take years to develop, and National Farmers Market Week played an important role in strengthening that connection. Last year both Governor Walz and Commissioner Peterson participated in a corn shucking competition at St. Paul Farmers Market to kick off farmers market week. The event which was organized by MFMA, provided a great opportunity to cement a positive relationship with key decision makers — despite them losing the competition — that paid off when markets needed their support the most.

With National Farmers Market Week 2020 beginning this Sunday August 2nd, farmers market organizations have an opportunity to follow MFMA’s lead and build relationships with their local officials. While large in-person special events like corn shucking competitions are off the table in this unique year, farmers markets need the support and understanding of decision makers more than ever. We still encourage market operators, vendors, and dedicated customers to invite your local, state, or federal elected officials for an in-person or virtual visit to the farmers market, and showcase the important role that your market plays in your community. 

Check out FMC’s advocacy toolkit for farmers market operators and invitation template for an easy guide through the process.