Over the last year, we’ve seen many news stories that reported product shortages at U.S. grocery stores due to COVID-19.
The pandemic hit the industrial food system hard. Protecting workers meant trucks didn’t move, distribution facilities went unmanned, and farm workers couldn’t harvest crops. Outbreaks at animal processing plants, where workers stand elbow-to-elbow, resulted in full shutdowns.
Consumers across the income spectrum experienced the spectacle of grocery store shelves stripped bare. For the first time, a majority of us had a window into what food insecurity might feel like.
For many Coloradans, however, empty shelves at the grocery store were not cause for panic. They turned to our robust local food system: the thousands of farms and ranches across Colorado that sell produce, eggs, meats, grains, dairy, and honey directly to their neighbors, especially through farmers markets.
These “community-scale growers” – the farmers and ranchers who connect our communities and sell directly to us – provide land stewardship, shared values and an alternative to the anonymous industrial supply chain.
However, community-scale growing comes at a price. In order to produce at this smaller scale, growers must forgo the cost efficiencies of large volume manufacturing. Our local farmers grow a diverse variety of crops at any given time, which means the land is best worked by more people and fewer machines.
Community-scale growers often prioritize long-term values over profit. Leaving room on the edges of fields encourages pollinator habitat and ecosystem health, but reduces harvest volume. Pasture-raised animals have room to roam, but are fewer in number. Lower production volume means fewer distribution options and fewer potential customers.
This is where farmers markets shine. Farmers markets are a direct manifestation of the local food system, made up of local farmers, ranchers, food artisans and the community, all of whom have a shared enthusiasm for food with integrity.
Most often, they are a community’s largest access point to the local food system. They create distribution efficiencies for local growers and connect tens of thousands of customers with local businesses. They help bridge the rural-urban divide by directly connecting rural farmers to urban customers.
In 2019, farmers and ranchers at Colorado’s largest market organization, Boulder County Farmers Markets, collectively sold over $5 million in local farm products. Half of this went back to rural communities, and $350,000 of the sales directly benefited low-income residents via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).
In total, the five markets in our organization recorded 350,000 visits during the year. Each one of these visits strengthened the bond between growers and the community they serve. Each of these visits strengthened local farms, the local food system, and local economies.
This same activity is repeated at each of the more than 100 farmers markets serving communities across the state.
COVID-19 brought a stark reminder of what we stand to lose. Across Colorado, farmers market openings were delayed last year because they are typically deemed “events” that often were restricted.
As a critical access point to millions of pounds of locally grown produce and meats, farmers markets are essential. Without them, the local food system is at risk.
Fortunately, because of support from the Colorado Farmers Market Association, Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment cleared markets to open in late March 2020 – with restrictions. The procedures necessary to ensure public safety resulted in fewer vendors, fewer customers, and increased operating complexity.
The outcomes have been uniform and alarming. In a recent nationwide survey conducted by the Farmers Market Coalition, a national market support and advocacy group, 74% of farmers markets indicated their incomes were lowered because of COVID-19, and 93% reported higher costs.
Industry trackers indicate many farmers markets across the country may not reopen this year. If so, local growers will stand to lose access to thousands of customers – reducing revenue and straining already razor-thin margins.
In addition to further eroding the fabric of rural communities, their struggle increases our dependence on the industrial food system, with fewer choices and less access to high-quality nutritious products.
Last year taught us the importance of a healthy local food system. With your continued participation, farmers markets across Colorado can continue to support the local food system and will serve Colorado communities well into the future.
Brian Coppom is the executive director of the Boulder County Farmers Markets.
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