Aug. 21, 2020
As pandemic continues, Arkansans look increasingly toward farmers’ markets and local vendors for food
By Ryan McGeeney
U of A System Division of Agriculture
- Vendors with online presence fare well
- Vendors adapt to new “grab ‘n go” environment
- COVID increases SNAP sales at farmers’ markets
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LITTLE ROCK — Customer demand for local food, particularly that supplied through local vendors, farmers and farmers’ markets, has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, local experts said this week.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released its annual National Farmers Market Managers report, which primarily identifies operational behaviors in markets across the country. Nationally, researchers surveyed managers of 8,140 farmers’ markets, 685 of which are located in the “West South Central Division,” to which Arkansas belongs, along with Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.
Ron Rainey, extension economist with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and director of the Southern Risk Management Education Center, conducted a survey of Arkansas farmers’ market managers in March and April 2020, which reached out to the 112 markets listed with the USDA, operating in 60 of the state’s 75 counties.
While the NASS report released this week does not address the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the operation of farmers’ markets — the survey data was gathered in 2019 — it does help to provide a context for understanding how well markets are coping with the “new normal” of pandemic conditions, Rainey said.
“Farmers’ markets are included in the list of ‘essential businesses,’ so they’ve remained open throughout the pandemic,” Rainey said.
In Rainey’s research, which was specifically aimed at assessing the effects of COVID-19 on managers’ plans for the season, he found that about 69 percent of market managers surveyed said they were planning to open for the season, while about 29 percent said they were unsure at that time. Only 2 percent of managers said they definitely did not plan to open.
Although there are some year-round farmers’ markets in Arkansas, the vast majority of them are open from early May through September.
Rainey said that in March and April, many managers were working to find ways to adopt reasonable safety precautions designed to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus while keeping respective markets open and profitable.
Rainey said that, based on anecdotal reporting across the state, markets that have remained open throughout the spring and summer have seen mixed results.
“Some markets are doing fantastic, other markets’ sales are down,” he said. “And there’s no urban/rural, metro/non-metro, large-versus-small correlation.”
Rainey said that farmers and other vendors who have been doing direct-to-consumer sales have apparently fared well in the current environment, however.
“The thing that I’ve heard consistently is that farmers selling directly from their farms are having a good year,” he said. “So, while some consumers may not go to a market, they’re still buying directly from farms when they have the opportunity.”
Switch to grab n’ go
Jeremy Adams, who manages the “Double Up Food Bucks” program for the Arkansas Coalition for Obesity Prevention, said that overall market sales should be considered in the context of the mandate from the Arkansas Department of Health which required markets limit their offering to food and other essentials during the pandemic.
“Things started off slow, but markets are definitely seeing increased use,” Adams said. “Sales are increasing. The River Market in Little Rock is seeing about 1,400 people a week, which is pretty good for COVID, and considering they pretty much pulled out all the arts and crafts — they’re strictly selling food-related items, plus maybe masks and soaps.
“The state wanted to create an environment where people weren’t lingering, looking at jewelry and things that weren’t necessities,” he said. “It changed the environment from a social environment to a sort of ‘grab-and-go’ environment. It took an adjustment on the part of the customers, vendors and markets themselves.”
Adams said that a common key to vendor success was a pre-existing online presence.
“Anyone who already had an online presence for their farm or their food system — if they were able to sell it online before COVID — they’ve seen three to four times the amount of traffic on their online sites,” he said. “A lot of them say they can’t keep up.”
Adams said that a possible silver lining to the current pandemic situation is that it has led consumers to begin placing a higher premium on locally-produced food.
“In some cases, it’s a supply-chain issue,” he said, noting the empty supermarket shelves that were a common sight in mid-March, when widespread panic-buying took hold. “I think some of it is an economic issue — people wanting to support their local economies with food dollars.”
Adams said the COVID era has also seen an increase in the use of SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — funds at farmers’ markets. While less than 15 percent of markets in Arkansas accept SNAP, Adams said 2020 has seen the largest number of transactions under the “Double Up Food Bucks” program, which allows consumers to buy certain produce items at about half price, in the program’s five-year history.
“We saw more than 3,000 transactions by the end of July,” Adams said. “I expect that, by October, we will have reached more than 6,000 transactions.”
About the Division of Agriculture
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture’s mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation’s historic land grant education system.
The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs to all eligible persons without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.
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University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture
Cooperative Extension Service