OWEN SOUND — When COVID-19 hit, followed by a societal lockdown, there was a lot of uncertainty for farmers markets and the farms that rely on them. Not designated essential businesses at first, many were unsure if they’d open at all this year.
Fortunately, most did. Farmers Markets Ontario (FMO), which represents most markets in the province, said that of their 178 members, 148 were ultimately able to open this year.
And those that opened had a pretty good year by all accounts, said FMO executive director Catherine Clark.
When the lockdown was announced in March it sent farmers markets scrambling in all directions, she said. FMO worked with Public Health Ontario to develop protocols for markets to open and many made a concerted push to go online; about 28 markets did. By and large those markets that weren’t able to open simply didn’t have the manpower to meet the requirements from public health.
Markets had to be flexible and many were more than up to the challenge. After about 150 years in business the year-round Saturday indoor market at Owen Sound shut down on March 13 but re-adjusted to re-open an online market May 11, thanks to a timely grant from Greenbelt Ontario. Despite a few technical glitches, vendors and customers adapted quickly and the market was handling 80-90 orders per day, said market manager Morag Budgen. By the third week of June the market was back to working in the real world by adding four volunteers to handle crowd control. Attendance numbers were down: at peak the market would normally get about 1,500 people. This year it varied from 750 to 900. But overall sales were only down about five per cent over last year, she said.
The market was planning a new idea on Nov. 14 to rotate its 25 vendors. With the colder weather and new restrictions on crowd capacity, food vendors would get to setup in the morning; craft vendors get the afternoon.
Maybe change isn’t so bad, said Budgen. “I very much doubt we would’ve gone online or split the market if we weren’t forced to.” Being forced to change and surviving or even thriving “made us realize change is possible.”