The coronavirus pandemic has pushed farmers markets across Alaska to get creative this summer. Some are requiring masks, and others, like the Sitka Farmers Market, are going virtual. It’s food security concerns that are pushing many markets to operate this summer despite the challenges.
Laura Schmidt stands inside a new high tunnel at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm near downtown Sitka. The air is about 15 degrees warmer in here than it is outside–a perfect home for a sea of zucchini plants. She bends down and plucks one of their bright yellow flowers. She’s hand-pollinating the plants to make sure they produce healthy fruit.
“So, I peeled off the boy flower and now this is the boy flower, and I’m gonna put it on the inside of the, you know, the female section,” she says. “And you can see right below it, there’s a little zucchini growing.”
She picks an early zucchini that she’ll sell on Saturday.
Schmidt is the lead gardener for the Sitka Local Foods Network, which runs the town’s farmers market. It’s still operating this summer, despite the pandemic, but things are different. Customers pre-order and head to the farm just for pick-up. Having less interaction with customers is an adjustment, Schmidt said, but she’s glad that people are still getting local food.
“It’s really nice to see people and have people come look at what you’ve been working on, but you know, what can you do,” she said. Operating cashless and delivering orders to people’s vehicles is a much safer alternative during the coronavirus pandemic, she said.
“It’s really nice that people can still eat this produce and that it has some place to go, and people will appreciate it.”
Some farmers markets, like the ones in Homer and Fairbanks for example, are still operating in-person, but they’ve required masks and spread out vendors to allow for social distancing. Sitka Local Foods Network President Charles Bingham said they didn’t really have that option. Normally, they operate at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, but it was still closed when they were planning the market.
St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm doesn’t have much space to spread out, so customers have to order and pay online at the Salt and Soil Marketplace. Bingham said they also reduced their vendors to a handful focused solely on food.
“Our mission is to increase the amount of locally-harvested foods in the diets of southeast Alaskans, and so arts and crafts is nice at the farmer’s markets, but it’s really not in our mission,” he said.
Bingham’s also on the Alaska Food Policy Council board and said they’ve seen job loss associated with the COVID-19 pandemic lead to increased food insecurity in many Alaska communities. Sitka’s farmers market is partnering with local businesses and organizations to quadruple benefits for SNAP and WIC program participants when they purchase a vegetable box. But there’s only so much they can do to help, Bingham said.
“We have a limited number of food being grown here in town and so food security is a major issue in this community and that’s why we’d love to see more gardens, more people growing their own and that kind of thing,” he said.
And affording food isn’t the only food security issue the pandemic has raised, said Alaska Farmers Market Association Director Robbi Mixon. This spring, empty store shelves and reports of coronavirus spread in slaughterhouses down south highlighted food supply chain concerns in Alaska. That’s one reason Mixon’s organization worked with state agencies to declare farmers markets essential businesses in early April.
“Realizing we’re actually at the end of some of our food chains here. Alaska’s often the last stop, you know, not being connected to the lower 48. That’s one reason I think it’s important to shop local now more than ever,” Mixon said.
Farmers have also taken a hit as demand from tourists and restaurants decreases. So, Mixon said, her organization is working hard to make sure markets have the tools they need to stay open.
“We know how hard it is to run farmers markets during non-pandemic times, so our association has been really important to many markets this year in trying to figure out the best way to move forward during these challenging times,” she said.
Each Alaska market is adapting their model to meet local needs and requirements. That’s fitting in a city and state where growing things means thinking outside the box all the time, not just during the pandemic, said market gardener Laura Schmidt.
“It’s always different in Sitka. It’s not quite agriculture as we know it in other places,” Schmidt said.
After a rainy June, she’s hoping for a sunny July to boost local food production. But, rain or shine, visitors or no visitors, she’ll make do with what she’s got.
For more information about how to navigate the adapted Sitka Farmers Market this year, head to sitkalocalfoodsnetwork.org, or call market co-manager Ariane Goudeau at 738-5015.