It’s May and we are still living in unusual times, with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and COVID-19 disease outbreak keeping many of us sheltered in place. The pandemic has scuttled some of our plans for the 2020 Sitka Farmers Market season, and we’re trying to adapt to our changing world so we can host something this year. We gave Sitka an update on our plans in late March, and now it’s time for another update.
We are still finalizing plans, but it doesn’t look as if we’ll be able to host a full Sitka Farmers Market this summer. Our regular venue, Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall, is still closed, and even if we could use the building current state mandates limit what we can do. While the state considers farmers markets to be essential businesses, the state is limiting markets to food sales only and not allowing arts and crafts (about 65-70 percent of our vendors). We’d love to hold a regular market, but under the current situation we just can’t. We love serving as an incubator for small businesses and a community gathering place, so we hope to return to having a full market next summer.
So where does that leave us for the 2020 summer? The Sitka Local Foods Network, as usual, is growing fresh produce at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm. Our produced-growing operation has a Certified Naturally Grown designation, showing our commitment to sustainable agriculture, and we built a second high tunnel this spring to extend our growing season.
We think giving Sitka residents access to healthy, local food is critical to our food security, and we still plan to sell produce this summer. It’s in our mission, and we plan to do it. Since we are losing our market manager of the past three years (Nina Vizcarrondo) to Coast Guard relocation, we hired two co-managers to replace her — Ariane Martin Goudeau and Nalani James. Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham also will assist with the markets, and Laura Schmidt has been our lead gardener at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm for about a decade.
Right now our plan is to use an online sales portal, Salt and Soil Marketplace based in Juneau, where people will order a box of produce during the week, pay for it online, and then pick it up on Saturday. We plan to sell a $20 box of produce that will feature four selected veggies that are currently in season, and a $40 box which will include additional veggies. We also may sell selected individual veggies when we have an abundance beyond what we’d put in the boxes. In order to simplify things this year, we will not carry our usual Alaska Grown products this summer. We plan to work with Middle Island Gardens, which will sell its produce on Salt and Soil Marketplace and have its own delivery pick-ups at the same time and location.
We are still trying to finalize our agreement on dates and times with our proposed venue, and that will be announced once it’s confirmed. We are negotiating with a centralized outdoor venue, and our proposed hours are from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays. We hope to hold our first pick-up on June 20, and then every Saturday in July, August, and September.
Due to health and safety concerns from the COVID-19 outbreak, things will look different on market Saturdays. We are trying to minimize contact as much as possible, and all of our volunteers will wear gloves and masks and we ask all of our customers to also wear masks. We have been attending several workshops on how to safely run a market, and we decided simplicity and safety was our priority this year. That’s why there will only be two vendors — the Sitka Local Foods Network and Middle Island Gardens — this year and all of our produce will be pre-sold before Saturday, so customers can get in and out as quickly as possible and we don’t have to handle cash or checks.
We will ask customers to drive up to our pick-up location, and wait in their cars (with engines turned off) until our greeters get their names and then gets their orders so they can be placed in their vehicle. There will be no at-market sales, so please stay with your vehicles and don’t come up to our tables. If you bike or walk, we will ask you to maintain proper social distancing until we can bring you your order. The first half-hour we are open will be designated for seniors and those with high-risk health issues, so they can get in and out before the big rush. Periodically, we may stop what we’re doing so everybody can wash their hands and reglove, and we can wipe down our tables. We want to make this safe for our customers and our volunteers.
One of our biggest issues is how we will be able to make sure our produce gets into the hands of lower-income Sitka residents. Normally we accept SNAP Alaska Quest EBT cards and WIC farmers market nutrition vouchers, but unless something changes soon we’re not allowed to use those methods if we use an online sales portal. We are trying to come up with a solution, and that may mean we have WIC/SNAP beneficiaries send us an email or call a special phone number to receive a free $20 box of produce every other week. Since we won’t get reimbursed by the state, we’ll cover the costs from our general fund. This will only be for the Sitka Local Foods Network produce.
We still have a few things to work out, so we will will provide another update as those details are confirmed. If you have any questions, feel free to call Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham at 623-7660 or email email@example.com.