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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Voracious for veggies: Farmers markets poised for big summer with eased restrictions

UPDATED: Tue., May 11, 2021

In many ways, business boomed at farmers markets last year.

Spokanites, until then cooped up inside from the COVID-19 pandemic, were pouncing on whatever outdoor events hadn’t been canceled. Home cooking became popular, creating a new wave of chefs eager to buy high quality ingredients. Americans took up amateur gardening too, so demand for starter plants soared. On top of that, many people made concerted efforts to support local businesses.

“Think about it, they’re waiting in line to buy kale,” Fairwood Farmers Market Manager Karol Widmer said. “Really?”

At the same time, Washington’s COVID-19 restrictions did slow down business.

While farmers markets were declared essential and allowed to remain open, they had to keep vendors 10 feet apart.

Even outdoor events had to enforce social distancing, so markets had to limit capacity – which led to some of the long lines. Many markets had to operate with limited space, so the 10-foot rule forced them to turn away some vendors that could normally have been placed closer together. Live music wasn’t allowed.

This summer, business will be more normal, farmers market managers said. Instead of keeping vendors 10 feet apart, the rules allow for 6-foot gaps between booths – that’ll mean more farmers selling produce. Live music is OK, provided there’s a 20-foot buffer between the act and the audience.

“It’s a bit of a hybrid between 2020 and 2019,” South Perry Farmers Market Executive Director Karyna Goldsmith said.

Lindsey Leard, 16, arranges the jars at the Tate’s Honey Farm booth on the first day of the Spokane Farmers’ Market, Saturday, May 8, 2021, at the corner of 5th avenue and Browne Street.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Lindsey Leard, 16, arranges the jars at the Tate’s Honey Farm booth on the first day of the Spokane Farmers’ Market, Saturday, May 8, 2021, at the corner of 5th avenue and Browne Street. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Goldsmith said COVID-19 restrictions weren’t just a logistical challenge.

Farmers markets are inherently social places, she explained. It’s natural for them to be well-attended, bustling places, with people moving about shoulder-to-shoulder. Enforcing attendance limitations and social distancing dramatically changed the market vibe, Goldsmith said.

“The markets, which primarily are funded by vendor booth fees, experienced an income reduction in 2020,” Inland Northwest Farmers Market Association co-founder Rob Allen said.

Most markets will have more vendors this year (in addition to the loosened spacing limitations, there’s been a surge of producers wanting to become vendors). Goldsmith said she’ll set a new high for vendors, in part because her market can now occupy a larger space at Grant Park.

“We have the ability to really spread out,” she said.

Even with COVID-19 restrictions, business in 2020 was mostly good. Farmers markets saw strong sales for the vendors that had booth space.

Goldsmith said she estimates her market saw twice as many customers in 2020 as it did the year before.

“Our sales were unprecedented,” she said. “It was farmers that were selling out week after week.”

Spokane Farmers Market Manager Diane Reuter said the restrictions didn’t hurt her vendors much, if at all.

“Our numbers sort of stayed right up where they’d been,” Reuter said. “We have a very, very committed customer base. Last year we had a line down the block a ways of people trying to get in. People showed up before we were even open.”

Goldsmith said her first market of the season went historically well.

“It was by far the busiest first market we’ve ever had,” she said. “You just saw empty tables everywhere you looked.”

All farmers markets said 2021 should go more smoothly, after a year of practice navigating the COVID-19 guidelines.

“I feel so much more confident going into this season than I did last year,” Widmer said, “because I have last year under my belt.”

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