Farmers' Market shoppers during the COVID-19 outbreak | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Considered an essential means for people to obtain food, the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers’ Markets remain open for business, with all six markets functioning as usual. There are, of course, new protocols for operating in a safe manner during the COVID-19 pandemic, which should be followed by sellers and buyers alike. 

The market association’s director, Sam Edelman, answered some questions about the market for us this week. 

Is business down dramatically or still hanging in there?  I will say for now that hanging in there would be accurate. We are really appreciative to still be in business while so many others have been forced to close their doors. Our farmers’ markets are indeed an essential food resource for our community and having direct access is incredibly important. 

Financially, our expenses have currently surpassed our income but, while I believe it will be challenging, we should be able to support our operation for some time. The ongoing community support really makes that all possible. 

Customer attendance has been dwindling over the past two weeks, and overall sales are down, but we are much less impacted than many others. We have fewer farmers participating at the moment, so because of this, it does allow the farmers who are attending the opportunity to better maximize their sales in conjunction with the reduced customer attendance. Customers that are attending seem to be spending more individually on groceries per person, likely to avoid additional trips to the conventional grocery store. 

What specific safety measures are you taking? Are they intensifying?  Maintaining a safe and healthy farmers’ market shopping environment, both for our farmers and customers, is a top priority, and with that, we have a number of protocol measures currently in place. The protocol has continued to evolve. Ensuring that proper distancing measures are in place is a necessity, so we now have market booths spread apart from one another as much as possible, each individually roped off with clear exit and entry points, and six-foot distancing lines marked out at each booth to ensure proper spacing. 

We additionally have a standing order with MarBorg for the delivery and removal of multiple handwashing stations prominently placed throughout our markets. On Tuesday they are centrally located in the middle of the market street in various locations, and on Saturdays at the top and bottom of each market row, as well at each entrance. 

Shoppers practicing social distancing at Tuesday’s Farmers’ Market

Do you expect any more regulatory changes?  Changes on the state and local level have been ongoing and we have been in regular contact with S.B. County Environmental Health Department inspectors. This past week, the face-covering recommendation was a new addition, and I do expect there to be increased protocol measures in the weeks to come. We will follow any directive provided by our health agencies. 

Are shoppers happy to have you open?  From my regular interactions with our customers, they are incredibly appreciative that we are open. Many have expressed to me that our farmers’ market is currently the only place they feel comfortable shopping for food at the moment, and we are doing everything we can to maintain this vital resource. 

I think being outside to shop rather than in an enclosed space brings a higher level of comfort for many. We have really been transitioning from a primary shopping outlet and a secondary social outlet to solely an essential grocery outlet. It is a very delicate balance preserving access to our local farmers while ensuring a safe shopping experience, particularly when our association and our community is so accustomed to doing things a certain way. 

It really takes a community effort to make this work, and I am hopeful that our customers continue to understand that stopping to socialize at our market with others is not appropriate at this time. We greatly look forward to the day when we can bring the social component back to the market, but for now, groceries have to be the sole focus.     

How are farmers feeling?  Our farmers are generally thankful that our markets remain open and that we are still in business, and at the same, worried that we will be forced to close like so many other businesses. Most of our farmers would not be able to sustain financially with a prolonged, or even short-term, closure of our farmers’ markets or a major reduction in sales, but am hopeful we can all pull through these very challenging times together. 

There is also indeed concern about the exposure we all have with so much interaction with the public, as I’m sure is the case with most in the grocery business at this time. But we are working really hard to ensure the farmers market remains safe. 

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