More options coming as season progresses
Normally crowded and bustling on Memorial Day weekend, the Methow Valley Farmers Market in Twisp was a quiet scene last Saturday, with about a dozen vendors offering early spring vegetables, garden starts, and some food products to customers who mostly came to pick up orders placed in advance.
It was the third weekend of operations for the market, which opened a month later than usual as farmers and market directors determined how to comply with state restrictions related to the coronavirus response.
In addition to the lack of crowds, other changes are evident. All customers and vendors are required to wear masks. If shoppers don’t have one, they are provided one free, donated by local craftspeople, at the entrance to the market. People are asked to stay 6 feet apart, to refrain from touching products, and instead allow gloved vendors to serve them.
Instead of the normal 50-60 vendors, most selling crafts and food, the market has been limited to farmers and food producers (considered essential businesses), selling vegetables and plants, cheese and meat, bread, and pickles. “The market is a lot more fragmented than we’re used to,” said Willy Getz, market manager.
Like so many businesses during this COVID-19 crisis, farmers have had to find new ways of getting their products to customers. They got assistance from the Methow Conservancy last month, which helped several local farmers set up online stores where customers can place orders for pickup at the Saturday market.
The Methow Conservancy has worked to promote local farmers, creating a “Methow Grown” farm directory about three years ago, said Alyssa Jumars, agriculture support coordinator with the Methow Conservancy.
“When the market didn’t open in April, some farmers reached out to the Methow Conservancy to see if we could help them in some way,” Jumars said. Of eight farmers that initially contacted her, only two already had websites to sell products online, she said.
Jumars found a free open source program, called Open Food Network, that enables farmers to create online stores, and worked with farmers to develop a website where customers can place orders to be picked up at the Saturday market in Twisp. There are currently nine farmers selling products online at http://www.methowgrown.org/buy. Orders can be placed from Wednesday morning through Thursday at 8 p.m.
Open for shopping
The first market on May 8 was open for pickup of pre-ordered products only, but the past two markets have been open for shopping at the market. However, the majority of market-goers are still ordering online, Jumars said.
The goal of the online sales is to help local farmers find a way to sell their products, and to make purchasing easier for customers, Jumars said. Online orders are packed and labeled with customers’ names, ready for pickup, and most are pre-paid online, which reduces the time customers spend at the market, in keeping with social distancing guidelines.
“It makes it easy for people to buy their products quickly and efficiently. People are pretty quick getting in and out of the market,” Jumars said. “It’s nice for farmers too. When they go out to harvest, they know what they’re harvesting has been sold.”
Casey Smith of BCS Livestock in Winthrop said he already had an online store to sell his lamb and wool hats, but had never sold his products at the Methow Valley Farmers Market. “The first time was three weeks ago,” Smith said this week. “It’s definitely been worthwhile to go down there. The pre-order sales have been super successful and helpful for us. When we go, there’s a certain amount of product that’s been sold … and by sitting there you’ll sell a little bit more to people that are walking in from the street.”
Smith sells a lot of his lamb, specially cut, to restaurants. But with restaurants closed during the coronavirus shutdown, the lamb is sitting in the freezer. So finding a new market at the Methow Valley Farmers Market is a welcome opportunity, Smith said.
“We’re getting a lot of new customers. And hopefully over time, as people become more familiar with what we have, it will make people more consistent with their buying as well,” Smith said. “It definitely would be nice to do more business, which we’re hoping for with the added exposure and getting new customers and getting the word out – it’s incentive beyond just the sales at the market.”
In addition to Smith’s lamb, online Farmers Market products currently include vegetables in season, plant starts, beef, goat cheese, honey, and sourdough bread.
As the growing season progresses, more farms familiar to market patrons are expected to offer online sales of fruit, berries, vegetables, and honey, Jumars said.
About 250 people have signed up for weekly reminders to order products, and 600-1,000 people have visited the website each week, Jumars said. Even after restrictions on social distancing and large gatherings are lifted, many customers and farmers are likely to continue with online sales, she said.
“We are collaborating on getting produce to other drop points in the valley, and maybe a delivery service. I think that’s where the market was going even before this [coronavirus pandemic]. Farmers made that giant leap … into technology. I’m glad we had a role in supporting farms early on in this crisis,” Jumars said.
The pleasure that many people take in selecting their own products, “picking and choosing and looking at stuff,” can’t be replaced by online sales, Jumars acknowledged. Nor can the opportunity to linger and talk with other community members at the market. “It’s almost as much a social event as an economic event in the valley,” she said.
As restrictions on non-essential businesses are lifted, the market will open again to vendors selling art, crafts, and prepared food, Getz said. But features that encourage people to gather, like live entertainment, aren’t likely to return soon. “Normally I put out picnic tables so people can hang out, but I don’t think that’s in the cards,” he said.