Published in Food/Agribusiness

Farmers markets prove crucial for vendors, startups during the pandemic

BY Sunday, May 23, 2021 05:40pm

Despite a season last year filled with widespread shutdowns and canceled events, farmers markets across Michigan not only survived the pandemic, but in some cases thrived.

“Last year was my first year at the market and I was surprised at how many customers came through — we were enforcing mandatory masks,” said Randal Stewart, manager for farmers markets in both Grand Haven and Spring Lake.

“I think we were determined to be an essential part of the community,” she continued. “I think it was an outlet for people to be able to get out. I talked to all the vendors and they all said their sales had increased.”

In 2021, community farmers markets across West Michigan look to build on the momentum they created last year and remain as a sought-after resource in the post-pandemic era, even while vaccines continue to roll out and shoppers consider indoor grocery stores to be a safe and viable option once again.

Essential sales channel

Last year, Stewart gained a more profound understanding and connection with the vendors at her farmers markets. She made a day trip to each one of the farms to see their operations for herself.

During her time connecting with farmers and other vendors, she learned how important that markets were for local food producers and small food startups.

She also found that these farmers and vendors treated markets as a crucial avenue for selling their products and connecting with local communities.

“At the end of the market, I kind of walk up to each vendor and ask, ‘How did you do today?’” Stewart said. “If you talk to any of the farmers, they all depend on the income that comes from a farmers market.”

Zenobia Taylor-Weiss, founder and owner of Grand Rapids-based Cellar Door Preserves, is one of the many food startups that utilize local markets to bring her product to the community.

Taylor-Weiss’ four-year-old company that makes artisan preserves generates more than half of its revenue through wholesale distribution to mostly specialty shops and boutiques. However, she estimated that around a quarter of her sales were generated at both farmers markets and arts and crafts fairs.

The arts and crafts events were all called off last year because of COVID-19 while farmers markets were able to proceed based on their status as an essential food provider.

During 2020, Cellar Door Preserves established a presence at both the Fulton Street Farmers Market in Grand Rapids and the farmers market in Rockford. Taylor-Weiss said that sales she generated there helped to offset the business lost from the arts and crafts fairs.

“Farmers markets were way better last year and our sales increased there. My guess is because people felt safer shopping there and it was an activity for people to do,” Taylor-Weiss said.

As an extremely accessible sales avenue — the most that Taylor-Weiss has ever paid in booth fees was $30 per week — the increased sales has prompted Cellar Door Preserves to expand its presence at local markets. This season, Cellar Door will also set up at markets in both Kentwood and Kalamazoo.

The pandemic also helped Taylor-Weiss to fine tune her sales technique.

“Pre-COVID, I allowed people to sample everything,” she said. “I was terrified. I sell $12 jam and I didn’t expect people to buy $12 jam without tasting it. I was fully expecting the markets to be terrible and I was very pleasantly surprised. Not only did people buy my jam, but my sales increased.”

Cellar Door Preserves established its own kitchen space in 2019 and now features two full-time and six part-time employees. Taylor-Weiss said weathering the pandemic with the aid of the farmers markets helped to confirm the viability of her business.

“I feel like my business is stronger for having made it through,” she said.

New customers

Hailey Lamb, communications manager for the Michigan Farmers Market Association, said while outcomes vary on a case-by-case basis, her organization found that many markets around the state had higher-than-expected traffic and sales in 2020.

Expanded food assistance benefits issued to hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents played a role in driving new customers and more money to the farmers markets, she said.

Currently more than 1.3 million Michigan residents receive food assistance and 700,000 have seen an increase in their monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

In response, Lamb said that some Michigan markets shifted course to accept food assistance payments.

“Once that infrastructure is in place, they’ll keep it,” Lamb said. “That continues to attract new and existing customers.”

The Metro Health – University of Michigan Health farmers market in Wyoming was able to capitalize on the additional food assistance funds and the public’s renewed interest in purchasing local food.

Michelle Rademacher, head of community outreach for Metro Health, said the market was able to complete a full season in 2020, but the number of vendors — typically 50 to 54 — was cut in half to facilitate proper social distancing.

The market kicked off its new season on May 13 and is expecting 36 vendors this year.

Rademacher said traffic to the market ebbed and flowed in 2020, but was overall on par with a typical year.

“With more people working from home, and possibly working from home for the continuation of the year, we may see the increase in attendance continue throughout 2021,” she said.

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