After a difficult few seasons, local farmers markets are looking forward to the start of a spring and summer season without COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s going to be a back to normal year,” said Mandy Thompson, market manager for the Community Farmers Market of Chehalis.
At all five of the area’s Washington Farmers Market Association markets, masks are welcomed but no longer required and social distancing and other restrictions related to the pandemic have been lifted. At the nearly year-round Toledo Thursday Market, which returned from its midwinter hiatus on March 17, there are still a few shoppers who choose to mask, said Carol Berch, of River House Bake Shop, but by and large shoppers have been relieved to have one less barrier to shopping and socializing at the market.
“I would say it’s a general sense of, ‘Thank goodness that’s over,’” Berch said of market shoppers’ reaction after the statewide mask mandate being lifted. “We are, as a population, getting back to somewhat normal, getting back into the world. It’s just nice to be out and about again.”
The last two seasons for local farmers markets have been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some markets struggled with the loss of shoppers and vendors and all had to contend with the extra expense and labor of implementing public health regulations just to be open. The bright light, said Morton Farmers Market Manager Trevor Manns, who owns Lonely Mountain Growers with Aubrey Kendall, was that shoppers did continue to shop at farmers markets, proving to farmers the markets were worth the effort.
“Hopefully (lifting of restrictions) leads to an even bigger turnout this year,” Manns said.
Loosening COVID-19 restrictions means the ability for markets to return to programming such as kids’ clubs, live music, samples and cooking demonstrations. A few of the markets are also offering food trucks again this year, as shoppers will once again be encouraged to visit the market and stay for a while. For example, Berch said when the Toledo market moves to its outdoor location sometime in May (depending on weather) they hope to bring in a much bigger shaded area to allow shoppers a place to rest and visit.
“We want to be more of a gathering place because that’s historically what markets are,” Berch said.
Loosened restrictions also bring a return to the part of the market many farmers say is their favorite: visiting with shoppers. Marie Shankle, market manager for Centralia Farmers Market and owner of Olde Achers Farm, noted that shopping at a farmers market is a great way for community members to support local agriculture. She explained about $.15-$.17 of each dollar spent on produce at a chain store goes to the farmers that grew it while $.90 of each dollar spent at farmers markets goes to the farmers.
“Know your farmer. Know your food,” she said.
“And when it’s picked in the morning and sold at the farmers market that day, you don’t get more fresh than that,” added Shankle’s husband, Brett Shankle.
The LocalLine online ordering through the farmers markets that was offered last year will only continue to be offered through the Toledo Thursday Market this year. Managers at the other markets said they did not have the volume of orders to justify continuing to offer the service, especially because they are expecting shoppers to be eagerly awaiting the chance to gather at the markets this year. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, the Tenino Farmers Market actually doubled in size the last two years, said Bridget Fosse, market manager of the Tenino Farmers Market and owner of Karmakee Farm.
“We had an extraordinary year,” Fosse said.
Supply chain issues and rising grocery prices may at least partially fuel some of the sales at farmers markets this year. One trend market managers say they have noticed is the number of shoppers using food assistance program benefits at the market. Thompson said the Community Farmers Market of Chehalis saw a large uptick in new farmers market customers last season driven by increased food assistance being offered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Hopefully they are going to continue to come to the market,” she said.
All of the local Washington State Farmers Market Association markets accept Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program as well as WIC Farmers Market coupons. Shoppers can also use food stamp benefits (EBT/SNAP) and match of their money spent, dollar for dollar, of up to $40 per day.
“We have some shoppers that come to one market and buy meat from us that way and then, because it’s $40 per day, they can go to another market to get their fruits and veggies to get another match,” said Wanda Steger of Steger Family Farms of Chehalis, a vendor at several local farmers markets.
Opening Dates for Washington State Farmers Market Association affiliated markets in Southwest Washington:
Toledo Thursday Market
Now open 2-6 p.m. Thursdays
Steamboat Landing, 115 Ramsey Way, Toledo (Moves outdoor to boat launch sometime in May, depending on weather)
Online ordering with pickup at venue available through LocalLine
Toledothursdaymarket.com or @ToledoWAThursdayMarket on Facebook
Centralia Farmers Market (Historic Lewis County Farmers Market)
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays May 6-September
Pine Street Plaza, 100 E. Pine St., downtown Centralia
SNAP Market Match
Centraliafarmersmarket.org or @CentraliaFarmersMarket on Facebook
Tenino Farmers Market
10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays May 7-September
213 Sussex Ave. W., Tenino
Teninofarmersmarket.org or Tenino Farmers Market on Facebook
Morton Farmers Market
10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays May 7-Sept. 24 (not open Loggers’ Jubilee Weekend)
Grassy Area at Gus Backstrom Park, 700 West Main Ave., Morton
Fompwa.org or @mortonfarmersmarket on Facebook
Community Farmers Market of Chehalis
11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays June 7-October
Northeast Boistfort Street in downtown Chehalis
Chehalisfarmersmarket.com or @CommunityFarmersMarketChehalis on Facebook