‘Absolutely essential, especially now’: Year-round farmers’ markets a steadying force

Santa Cruz County’s winter farmers’ markets provide ‘arguably a safer shopping environment,’ one proprietor says. But they also tie together a healthy community of like-minded people who strongly believe in their essential-ness amid the pandemic.

It was last March, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were just starting to be understood, and Nesh Dhillon was battling through spotty Wifi service in rural Baja to find out what this new “Shelter In Place” order back home was all about.

“It was like Day One when I got a phone call from Catherine Barr (Monterey Bay Certified Farmers’ Markets manager) who said ‘We got shut down!’” recalls Dhillon, the Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Market manager.

People in the Pandemic

This series profiling the workers and patients who are fighting their way through COVID-19 is among eight Lookout initiatives documenting all aspects of the pandemic. For more, go to our COVID 2021 section, sign up for COVID Text Alerts and our COVID PM newsletter here, and leave feedback and ask questions at the end of this story.

Then came a call from Bonnie Lipscomb, Santa Cruz’s economic development director, who told him his presence was needed on the emergency COVID-19 task force that was being formed. It was clear that alarm bells were being sounded around one of Santa Cruz’s signature institutions.

They couldn’t really shut down farmers’ markets, could they?

For about a week they did. But, as Dhillon explains, the California Department of Food and Agriculture got involved quickly and soon enough to allow farmers’ markets to win that oh-so-necessary title in pandemic life: essential business.

The colors of the farmers' market never fail.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

It was only fitting. This is the state where farmers’ markets first became legal in the 1970s — and in which Santa Cruz itself lays claim to a piece of the certified organic movement.

“Farmers’ markets are a huge asset to our community — absolutely essential, especially now,” said Amelia Loftus, owner of Hidden Fortress Coffee Roasting and a longtime market proprietor.

RELATED: Everything we’ve learned about local virus spread

Dhillon’s input on that task force, imploring government leaders to support a model of decentralized food supply that happens to take place outdoors with much less risk of COVID-19 contamination, helped secure the vibrant markets that can be frequented safely some 10 months later.

Three of the five markets hosted by SCCFM — downtown on Wednesdays, the Westside on Saturdays and Live Oak on Sundays — are year-round, rain or shine. The Aptos market at Cabrillo on Saturdays, hosted by Monterey Bay Certified Farmers Markets, is the other that operates year-round.

THE YEAR-ROUND, RAIN-OR-SHINE MARKETS

Ronald Donkervoort, a farmer for the majority of his life, has been a part of the fabric of local farmers’ markets for decades. He started out in the flower fields of his home country of Holland, before traveling the world and finally settling in Santa Cruz County to grow food for his community.

Donkervoort’s strawberries are legendary, as are his stories. Those will now include his pandemic adventures.

His outlook is quite positive.

Nesh Dhillon
(Event Santa Cruz screen grab)

“Luckily the markets have been really good once people started realizing that outdoor shopping is the safest and the food the freshest to maintain good health,” he said. “Also, as a farmer and vendor, I have gotten even more appreciation than is usual … people do realize that we take a risk a few times a week being among so many people.”

He’s even gotten used to being “some kind of a traffic policeman” as he helps market shoppers maintain proper social distancing.

Wildmill Farms' Ronald Donkervoort
(Courtesy SCCFM)

“For me personally,” he said, “growing food and bringing it to my community will always be something special — no matter the circumstances.”

Yet, Donkervoort acknowledges that other folks along the farm-to-table food chain are less fortunate. “The real tragedy is in the fields where the COVID rate is very high and where a lot of the workers have to keep working, as many of them are not eligible for unemployment or other benefits to pay their bills.”

Loftus, the owner of Hidden Fortress Coffee Roasting, has been a vendor at various local farmers’ markets for more than seven years. What initially started out as a small farm business eventually blossomed into a full-scale coffee roastery, commercial kitchen, cafe and warehouse in Watsonville.

Amelia Loftus
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

But the location posed challenges and Loftus was very grateful for her mail order, subscription and farmers’ market business components when the pandemic posed extra challenges.

“The pandemic revealed this weakness when sales dropped by 70% in our cafe and our Cabrillo College coffee cart was abruptly shut down. If the cafe was our main source of business I doubt we would have survived 2020 as a business,” she said. “Fortunately our market business has been solid for years, and with the pandemic lockdown, we actually saw an increase as more customers started buying coffee beans to brew at home.”

But it hasn’t been easy. Loftus received a small PPP loan that helped initially, but the loss of two long-time employees added up to her working eight months straight without a day off. “I was doing my best to keep operations going with one full-time employee and one part time office and market helper,” she said.

Presented by Santa Cruz County Bank

The Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County re-envisioned its programs and initiatives to meet the needs and challenges of...

The importance to the community has never been more apparent, including those who are turning to food bank assistance via the California Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) and CalFresh programs.

“They offer local access to high quality nutritious produce. They keep our local food production network strong, really important when corporate food distribution fails,” Loftus said. “The contributions of local produce is essential when so many are turning to food banks.”

Then there is the outdoor environment the markets provide. “It’s arguably a safer shopping environment than indoor grocery stores,” Loftus said.

Fresh apples at Cabrillo.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s also a healthy community of like-minded people who strongly believe in their essential-ness in this particular moment.

There is a “strong community that exists within the market between farmers, vendors, customers, and market staff,” Loftus said. “This is a community committed to keeping each other healthy and safe.

“Having this community I am convinced has maintained a level of sanity that is difficult to find in our society today, and certainly aids in the well being of its participants … this community has made a difference.”

Have a question about the pandemic? Ask Lookout . . .

THE YEAR-ROUND, RAIN-OR-SHINE MARKETS