‘I have found my tribe’: despite closures, farmers’ markets flourish during Victoria’s lockdown | Food

September 7, 2020

Just hours before the Victorian government announced stage four Covid-19 restrictions, it was business as usual at the Eltham Farmers’ Market, 25km east of Melbourne.

Chris Chapple, the market manager, chatted to the regulars, kept an eye on the Covid-19 safety measures and sampled some of the food on offer, as well as doing much of his weekly shop with his wife, Mary.

Two weeks later, Chapple was fighting for the market to stay open, after the department of health and human services announced via its website on 20 August that open air food markets would be allowed to trade but added “excluding farmers markets”.

Advised that the reason was “to reduce the risk of infection”, Chapple wondered how sending over 1,000 extra people shopping in local supermarkets could achieve this result.

One day later, the decision was reversed. The Eltham Farmers’ Market was allowed to trade as usual within the confines of the state government’s restrictions as well as the self-imposed requirement that only 200 people be permitted at once in the market (they could have 300 and remained within the regulations).

Social distancing signs at Eltham Farmers’ Market Photograph: Chris Chapple

Farmers’ markets around Victoria have adapted in this way throughout the pandemic.

Kate Archdeacon of the Victorian Farmers Markets Association says: “Of 39 accredited Victorian farmers’ markets … 29 are scheduled to run in September.” She says that “the majority of the markets that have been closed throughout the various stages of lockdown have been closed through removal of site access by the landowner”. A few have also shut “through lack of support from their organising committee, largely due to being older and more vulnerable”.

Geeti Persson who began her business The Swedish Baker, at the beginning of the pandemic. Photograph: Geeti Persson

Bendigo’s farmers market was almost on the closure list. “When the council withdrew the permit at the eleventh hour for the site of the Bendigo market, producers with food ready to go had to pivot quickly,” says Chris Hain, president of the Victorian Farmers Markets Association and manager of the Bendigo Farmers Market. The solution was “three hastily configured pop-up markets at different sites”. Hasty though it may have been, the pivot worked. “The stallholders sold out in half an hour.”

Since that move, Hain found that there were many new customers who were not previously regular farmers market shoppers.

In another central Victorian town, Castlemaine, the weekly farmer’s market has grown rapidly since March, more than doubling its number of stalls.

“Market data shows a sales increase of between 10 and 30% since the pandemic began. This is remarkable because now there are fewer tourists and browsers. So now it’s locals coming to the market for their weekly shop,” Hain says.

This trend is not just in central Victoria.

Chapple says that, while attendance has fallen by around a third “despite this, feedback from many stallholders is that sales have increased”.

He believes that the reduced attendance and increased sales can be explained by “fewer people from each household shopping, but buying more at the market rather than having to shop somewhere else later in the week”.

Hans Hoffman, a stall holder at the market, retailing as Just Picked has noticed this trend. As a small producer of fruits and berries, whose only other outlet is the farm gate, he adds that the farmer’s market helps his business remain viable. “It increases our bottom line by about 30%.”

For Geeti Persson, now known as The Swedish Baker, farmers’ markets have become a primary place of business during the pandemic, after her catering business evaporated overnight. “We had already been affected by the bush fires,” she says. “We had international students working for us and they were like family. And there was no support from the government for them. I had run a café and bakery in Sweden so I decided to use whatever resources we had to start this up again.”

Now, despite the word ‘Hamburgers’ still written on the side of their trailer, Persson and her team sell sweet and savoury pastries, bread and house smoked salmon at still-open farmers’ markets across Melbourne, as well as delivering to homes.

Persson says she is much happier with her new lifestyle and will not go back to events. “I am loving it! I have found my tribe.”

Vikki and Nadisha, international students and employees of The Swedish Baker, pose with some of their merchandise. Photograph: Geeti Persson

Archdeacon sees farmers’ markets as critical for the survival of small farmers, many of whom, because of size and level of experience cannot meet the requirements of scale and consistency that supermarkets demand.

She says farmers’ market suppliers are “adaptable over time, sometimes one row of vegetables at a time”.

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