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How San Diego County Farmers Markets Are Fighting To Survive COVID-19

Farmers markets are more important than ever as both a source of produce and hope.

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April 21, 2020
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Credit: Valentin Russanov / All other images are courtesy of author, unless otherwise noted.

During the COVID-19 virus pandemic, there have been many questions as to whether the farmers markets should close or not. Fortunately, many have reopened under new rules to better serve new needs in the community.

At the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak, the government first prohibited gatherings over 50 people, then the number dropped to ten and many cities across San Diego County closed all their farmers markets. Within a week, the county deemed farmers markets essential businesses

A few cities continued to enforce the closure of their markets, while others began to establish new rules in order to reopen and keep the markets safe for farmers and customers. By April 1st, the countywide questions became: Which markets will stay open, which will close, and who will decide?

“There is much confusion as to the farmers markets opening and confusion ruins loyalty. It is difficult for everyone to navigate through this economic and health oriented pandemic,” explained Hannah Gbeh, the director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, who has been working diligently to establish temporary financial supportive measures for this industry, which up to this point did not have relief measures in place for small farmers in the county.

In North County San Diego, there are 13 active farmers markets, and of those, two have remained open throughout the pandemic and two additional markets have reopened, leaving Poway, Sikes, Rancho Santa Fe and Vista farmers markets to serve the entire area.

I headed to North County to learn more from the market managers and farmers at four remaining open markets.

Poway’s farmers market is located adjacent to Old Poway Park, so when the park was closed, the farmers market closed as well, but market manager, Suzanne Denixen sprang into action, working with the city health department to adjust space between vendors to accommodate the new regulations. Her market reopened after only a week, though their vendors dropped from 80 to 22, and those who have returned are experiencing a lower volume of sales than they usually do this time of year.  

“The COVID-19 virus has added immeasurable stress to some markets which were already struggling,” explained Gbeh. “Monitoring distance requirements have increased staffing requirements and coupled with the decrease in activity has decreased the income levels. These changing requirements are severely impacting the local agricultural community as well as other industries that rely on them for the produce these markets provide.”  

North County Sikes farmers market was closed for two weeks thanks to a special challenge. Located in San Diegito’s River Park, they cannot operate without a ranger on the premises, and the closure of city parks further complicated their re-opening.  

Sikes’s market manager, Claire Winnick, was able to obtain permission to operate every Sunday (though the park and Adobe Homestead remain closed), and she has even been able to welcome additional certified farmers.

The Rancho Santa Fe farmers market has remained open from the beginning of the pandemic, thanks to quick changes implemented by manager Diane Haworth and the vendors. In compliance with the health department, all chairs and tables were removed from the market, which in the past had always been a popular meet-up place for the community. The essential food vendors remained open and one of the artisan vendors began making and selling face masks in order to stay in business.

The market is now visibly smaller, and the rainy weather added to the low attendance and lower revenues. Their typical bustle has been replaced with an intimate commardre.

The Vista farmers market has also remained open without interruption. The market has moved several times throughout its long history, and it is now held in the parking lot of the Vista Court House on Melrose Avenue near the 78 corridor. Repairs and renovations of the parking lot complicated the distancing ordinances.

“We are doing everything we know to keep this market open as we have done, rain or shine for 38 years,” said Mark Wall, the market manager. “We’ll reevaluate our direction after another 38.”  

Despite his optimism, there are noticeably fewer vendors, with some of the smaller farms opting to stay home to protect their own families and some of the larger farms shifting to other creative ways to provide produce to long-term customers through home deliveries, CSA memberships, and online sales.

JR Organic Farm has been selling at farmers markets for over 30-years. One of the most well-established farms in the county, they have a presence at almost every market, including Vista, where they have continued to sell.

“At the very beginning of the debate over which markets would close and which would try to stay open, the members of this fourth generational, 80-acre farm, had a family meeting,” Willie Rodriguez of JR Organic Farms explained. “We collectively brainstormed ideas of continuing with our chosen fields of agriculture. It’s our families’ traditional business and we all wanted to be a viable part of providing the food needed during this trying time.”

Willie Rodriguez smiled under his face mask. “Yes, business is slower than usual, but we have increased our home delivery to our established customers, have added to the CSA boxes, and are seeing a loyal customer following.”  

His attitude reminded me what I’ve always loved about farmers, and why I spend so much time at farmers markets. It takes a fair amount of optimism to work the land, whether during a wet season, a dry season, the great depression, the dust bowl, or the current struggles of COVID-19.

“We are grateful and we are hopeful that we and our customers all stay safe and healthy,” he added.

Markets may have become food-first in their purpose during the pandemic, but their value extends far beyond that. Open markets have historically served as community gathering places, and when this has passed, they will be ready to again welcome neighbors and friends. In the meantime, the operating farmers markets of San Diego County, and the farmers who show up week after week, provide more than produce; they are testaments to resilience and hope.

Check out the Edible San Diego Farmers Market Guide for the most up-to-date list of farmers markets operating in San Diego County.

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