There is an unexpected silver lining to the current pandemic for those seeking locally farmed produce and meats in the Charlottesville area: Due to the radical change in business practices of area growers and restaurants, customers can now access an abundance of farmers’ offerings on an almost daily basis.
But this has also created a greater hardship for farmers, who’ve always relied heavily on wholesale sales to local restaurants, and have had to change how they do business.
“(Our) vendors were not too enamored with the drive-thru market model, having to list all products online,” says Market Central Chairperson Cile Gorham about City Market To-Go, a drive-thru market that started this spring in Pen Park, and is now held Saturday mornings at Darden Towe Park.
Elena Day, a small producer who sells vegetables, flowers, and homemade pies, didn’t have the time, computer savvy, or resources to get set up for online ordering, which required uploading images of products weekly, so she opted instead to sell at IX Art Park’s walk-up market.
Interaction with customers—even in these masked times—matters to Day. “I have good quality produce,” she says. “I like to see the people who buy, and have exchanges with them and that is the most important thing to me about a farmers’ market—the interpersonal exchanges: They educate me, and I educate them.”
Gorham says The Market at IX is currently the only local farmers’ market that accepts SNAP, where it matches benefits with coupons for free vegetables, fruits, and edible plants. Virginia has not come up with a method for allowing customers to use SNAP for online payments, so they must be used at a walk-up market where a wireless terminal is available to run the cards.
“The transition to a drive-thru market was sudden and quite difficult, says City Market Manager Justin McKenzie. “We limited the market to our year-round reserve vendors that were agricultural or sell value-added goods [such as bread, jams, pies, pastas, and such]. We are currently hosting roughly 50 vendors every week and have exceeded our expected weekly sales.”
Despite the challenging reconfiguring, vendors are learning to like the new way of doing business. “Sales have been pretty consistent and it’s nice to know how much you already sold, instead of hoping for a good market day,” says Crazy Farm’s Alicia Izaguirre. “The way the City Market is being run works well and keeps the health of everyone first and foremost.”
Portia Boggs, director of advancement and communications with The Local Food Hub, says the need for drive-thru markets will continue. “We saw the infrastructure that connects local food to its community crumbling, so we built a new infrastructure, and our growers and producers rose to the occasion, nimbly adapting their operations,” says Boggs. “Our vendors want to continue for the foreseeable future, and customers—some are elderly and immunocompromised—who don’t feel safe with traditional markets or shopping, appreciate the ease and safety of our market.”
In addition to finding new ways to sell her cheese, Caromont Farm’s Gail Hobbs-Page is also organizing cheese shares, and she agrees that there has been a learning curve.
“It was hell at first,” she says. “…In the old days you packed your cooler, you went to the market, and people either gave you cash or a card. Now online inventory has to go in on Sunday evening the week before, and you have to have everything planned a week ahead. …The good news is that the local food community here is strong and our sales remain very good.”
Hobbs-Page says she’s grateful to the restaurants that have remained open, such as The Local, Dr. Ho’s Humble Pie, Fleurie, and Petit Pois, whose owner Brian Helleberg has been inventive in trying to help local farmers, who he views as family.
“I’ve been ordering from some of these folks for 18 years,” says Helleberg. “These are the best family farms, they’re humble, I just really like working with them—they have such care of what they’ve made, it makes you want to eat it and it’s what I want to feed to my family.”
When businesses shut down, Helleberg decided to sell purveyor’s products alongside his restaurants’ carryout items, and thus was born the Land by Hand Chef’s Share, a subscription food basket with local produce, meats, cheeses, and eggs.
Long a steward of the Charlottesville community, Helleberg says he’s just doing his part to try to help out. “If you keep your values in mind, you have a family you work with, and farms you work with, and let it happen naturally, everyone benefits.”