Scenes from the first Sitka Farmers Market of the 2020 summer

Thank you to everybody who helped us test our new procedures for the Sitka Farmers Market on Saturday, June 20. There is no market this weekend (June 27), but we will hold produce pick-up days every Saturday in July, August and September this summer.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, we’re having to change a lot of our operation this year, and Saturday gave use a chance to see how things will work out. We have a greatly scaled back market this summer, due to state mandates and space limitations. Right now, we have converted to a market where people order produce online, then pick it up on Saturday.

We will take a break this week (June 27), but then we will have market pick-up days every Saturday in July (4, 11, 18, 25), August (1, 8, 15, 22, 29), and September (5, 12, 19, 26). We will open up our online ordering portal on the Salt and Soil Marketplace website, http://www.saltandsoilmarketplace.com, from 5 p.m. on Tuesday, June 30, until it closes at 8 p.m. on Thursday, July 2. Our next pick-up time is from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturday, July 4, at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm (located by the See House behind St. Peter’s By The Sea Episcopal Church, 611 Lincoln Street). This is where we grow most of our produce for the Sitka Local Foods Network farm stand.

“We wish we could have a regular farmers market, but we’re glad we’re able to at least do this, get fresh, local produce into the hands of Sitka residents,” said Charles Bingham, board president of the Sitka Local Foods Network which is hosting its 13th season of Sitka Farmers Markets. “We miss the camaraderie and vendors of a normal market, and we hope to be able to go back to that next summer. In the meantime, it is what it is, and we’re trying to make the best of the situation.”

On June 20, we had the Sitka Local Foods Network farm stand and Middle Island Gardens as vendors, but there may be additional vendors using Salt and Soil Marketplace that will sell food products in Sitka later this summer. Most of those vendors will distribute their products at our pick-up days, although they may not be physically present.

We expect to start taking WIC farmers market coupons and SNAP Alaska Quest EBT cards beginning with the July 4 pick-up day. Thanks to grants from the White E, Sitka Legacy Fund and The Alaska Community Foundation, people using WIC and SNAP benefits will be able to use $5 of their benefits to receive a $20 small basket of produce from the Sitka Local Foods Network farm stand. Since you won’t be able to use Salt and Soil Marketplace, you will need to call our Sitka Farmers Market phone at 738-7310 or email us at sitkafarmersmarket@gmail.com to reserve your basket, You will need to bring one WIC coupon or your Alaska Quest card to the pick-up site so we can process your order. There is a limit of one small basket of produce per family per week for WIC/SNAP benefits.

Due to COVID-19, we are trying to minimize exposure as much as possible. This means using the online format to reduce our handling of cash and checks. It also means all of our volunteers are gloved and masked (and our request that you also mask up). When you arrive to pick up your produce, we ask you park in one of the parking spaces at the top of the hill and turn off your engine. We will get your name and bring you your produce basket so you can transfer the produce into your own tote bag or box (we do need our plastic baskets back).

A slideshow of scenes from the first market is posted below.

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Sitka Local Foods Network prepares for 13th year of Sitka Farmers Markets

It’s the 13th season of the Sitka Farmers Market, and already it may seemed jinxed with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Sitka Local Foods Network will host another season of markets this summer, but due to the outbreak, special state regulations for the outbreak, new health and safety rules, and a need to get produce to people for food security there will be several changes to the markets this year. This article will attempt to detail some of those changes, so customers can navigate the new system.

The produce sold by the Sitka Local Foods Network at the Sitka Farmers Market is grown at the St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden. We have a new high tunnel this year, and our produce has a Certified Naturally Grown designation.

Probably the biggest thing people will notice is this year it’s not a full market. State COVID-19 rules are limiting our vendors (no arts and crafts) this summer, plus we don’t have the same amount of space for other vendors since our usual location of the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall wasn’t open when we had to plan.

That means we will host a greatly scaled back market this season. We will use an online ordering portal, we will have new health and safety rules, and we will meet at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm (located behind St. Peter’s By The Sea Episcopal Church, 611 Lincoln St.). This is where our lead gardener, Laura Schmidt, has been growing our market produce for the past decade. We also have two new market co-managers in Ariane Goudeau and Nalani James, since we lost our previous manager, Nina Vizcarrondo, to Coast Guard relocation.

“We are disappointed we won’t be able to host a full market this year,” Sitka Local Foods Network board president Charles Bingham said. “We really enjoy the feeling of community we get when we have all of the vendors, and it’s great seeing their interactions with customers. Being a business incubator was one reason for hosting the market. But our main reason for hosting the market is getting fresh, locally grown produce to Sitka residents, so we wanted to continue doing that. We had to simplify a lot this year, and we ask people to please bear with us as we adjust to the changes.”

This year, the markets will only feature our two regular produce vendors — the Sitka Local Foods Network farm stand and Middle Island Gardens. Both of us will be selling our produce using the Salt and Soil Marketplace website, http://www.saltandsoilmarketplace.com, so we can minimize our handling of cash and checks. Our online ordering period will be from 5 p.m. on Tuesday through 8 p.m. on Thursday, with our produce delivery from 10 a.m. to noon on Saturdays at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm.

One good change this year is we plan 14 market pick-up days this summer, which is twice our usual seven markets a summer. We will host a soft opening on Saturday, June 20, with limited produce availability (this is our earliest opening ever). Then we plan pick-up days on every Saturday in July (4, 11, 18, 25), August (1, 8, 15, 22, 29), and September (5, 12, 19, 26). We are launching a weekly Sitka Farmers Market newsletter that will be sent out on Tuesday afternoons and will list what’s available that week and remind people about how to order. Click the link in the right column on our website to sign up for the newsletter.

In order to order produce using the Salt And Soil Marketplace, customers will need to create a free Sitka-based account on the website. The website may mention a fee, but there is no fee for Sitka this year. Make sure you are logged into your account when you order, and click the Confirm button after you have finished your order so it registers in the system. Not clicking Confirm is a common mistake for new customers. If you need help using the online ordering system, call Ariane at 738-5015 and she can provide assistance.

A sampling of the produce that might be in an early season small box of produce for $20 this summer.

This year, the Sitka Local Foods Network is selling pre-selected farmer’s choice produce baskets with a variety of seasonal produce. Our first markets will feature our small baskets for $20 (about $25 worth of produce), and later, about mid-July, we will add our large baskets for $40. The small baskets typically will contain 4-5 varieties of produce, and early in the season that might be lettuce or salad mix, a second green such as kale or chard, rhubarb, and either onions, garlic, etc. The large baskets will include 2-3 additional varieties of produce when they become available.

We occasionally will have special items available when we have an abundance. For example, for the first week (June 20 delivery) we plan to have 10 small farmer’s choice produce baskets available for $20 and 10 special rhubarb baskets available for $20. There will be a limited number of salad bags with washed lettuce and flowers ($7), baggies of basil ($4) and bunches of broccoli raab ($4).

We also have about 30 of our 2019 Sitka Farmers Market tote bags available at $10 each, and we will have our 2020 Sitka Local Foods Network tote bags featuring our new logo available for $12 each when they arrive in Sitka. Because of our need to simplify the market, we will not be selling our usual Alaska Grown value-added products this summer.

We have about 30 of our 2019 Sitka Farmers Market tote bags available for $10 each until they run out.

Another change we’re having to make this year is how we handle WIC and SNAP clients. Current Alaska WIC and SNAP rules don’t allow for online sales, so we’ve been working with state officials to try and find a way to still provide produce to WIC and SNAP clients this year. In past years, we have accepted WIC farmers market coupons and Alaska Quest SNAP electronic benefits transfers at our SLFN farm stand. We also have matched up to $20 in benefits through a grant from the White E for produce bought from the SLFN farm stand. There is a limit of one small basket of produce per family per week for WIC/SNAP benefits.

“Finding a way to get fresh, local produce into the hands of WIC and SNAP clients has been our biggest challenge this year,” Bingham said. “We have several people on our board who have been WIC and/or SNAP clients, so we know how important it is for our lower-income residents to have access to this produce. That’s one reason we pursued grants and are willing to dig into our own general fund to help pay for this service.”

Early on, the Sitka Local Foods Network thought it would have to provide the produce using our general fund, since we wouldn’t be able to get the state reimbursement. But there have been some recent changes to make it easier. The Sitka Local Foods Network farm stand now will be able to accept WIC farmers market coupons and a match. We are able to do this because of the White E grant, and two new COVID-19 grants from the Sitka Legacy Fund and The Alaska Community Foundation.

This summer we will provide one small $20 basket of produce for one $5 WIC coupon. For SNAP clients, we will need to run their Alaska Quest EBT cards for $5 for one small basket of produce. Note, we only accept the Alaska cards, not those from other states, and the client has to have their WIC coupon or SNAP card with them when they pick up their produce on Saturday. Due to limited produce availability on June 20, we will start working with WIC/SNAP clients for our July 4 pick-up day and those following.

Since we can’t run these benefits using the Salt and Soil Marketplace, WIC and SNAP clients will need to call our Sitka Farmers Market phone at 738-7310 or email us at sitkafarmersmarket@gmail.com to place your order. We then will reserve your basket, which you will pick up on Saturday and pay for with your WIC/SNAP benefits.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, there will be several health and safety changes this summer.

“In order to host the market, we need to make sure we protect the health and safety of our volunteers and customers,” Bingham said. “Some of these rules are mandated by the state, and others are good common sense to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. These practices include masks and gloves, having a hand-washing station, and social-distancing, which all have been proven to be effective in reducing the spread.”

All volunteers will be wearing masks and gloves, and we ask customers to also wear masks. When they arrive at the parking lot, please park your car, turn off your engine and wait in the car. A greeter will meet you and get your name, then will bring your basket to you. Then you can open your door and put the produce in your own tote bag or box you brought from home (or purchased from us). Then place your basket at the front of your parking spot and slowly drive away.

If you are riding your bike or walking to pick up your produce, you will be pointed to a taped mark on the pavement to stand while we get your order. Please wait there until we bring it to you, then put it in your own tote or box. Due to the online ordering system, we will not be able to offer the Bicycle Benefits discount this year. We ask people who feel sick or have a fever to stay home and ask a family member or friend to pick up their orders, so we reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

We thank Sitka for its support, and look forward to seeing you briefly each Saturday this summer. For more details about the markets and changes, please contact Charles Bingham at 623-7660 or sitkalocalfoodsnetwork@gmail.com.

Another update about the 2020 Sitka Farmers Market and our contingency plans

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 sitkalocalfoodsnetwork@gmail.com.

An update about the 2020 Sitka Farmers Market and our contingency plans

Usually the Sitka Local Foods Network has announced the dates of the summer’s Sitka Farmers Market by now. But, as most of you are aware, these are not ordinary times.

We had been making our usual plans, and even had dates we planned to announce about now, but with the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak we had to go into wait-and-see mode. We even hired two new people to coordinate the Sitka Farmers Market this year — Ariane Martin Goudeau and Nalani James — because we’re losing our market manager of the past three years, Nina Vizcarrondo, to Coast Guard relocation.

Even though we’re in wait-and-see mode, the SLFN feels it does need to update the community.

First, we had big plans to grow even more produce than before at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm communal garden. We bought a second high tunnel, which has been erected on the site, so we can extend our growing season and have a little help with climate control. Laura Schmidt has been our lead gardener for about a decade, and deserves a lot of respect for how much produce she grows on the small patch of land we have access to behind St. Peter’s By The Sea Episcopal Church. We thank St. Peter’s for allowing us to continue growing food for the community on its property.

Regardless of whether we hold the Sitka Farmers Market or not, we will grow produce this summer at St. Peter’s Fellowship Farm. Sitka’s food security needs more local food, so we plan to find ways to get the food into the community, somehow, someway.

If all things were normal, our plan was to hold seven Sitka Farmers Markets again this summer for our 13th season. Our tentative dates are from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays, July 4, July 25, Aug. 8, Aug. 15, Aug. 29, Sept. 5, and Sept. 19, all at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall.

The Sitka Farmers Market is about local food, but it’s so much more. It’s about community and providing local entrepreneurs with a place to sell their products. We really enjoy seeing everybody come together to see their neighbors and friends at the market. That’s a big reason we want to host the market, if it’s possible.

But we don’t know when our shelter-in-place orders are going to end and we can start returning to normal. We are researching alternative ways to get our fresh produce into the hands of Sitka residents. We want to provide fresh produce, but also need to be conscious of everybody’s health during an outbreak.

That may mean going to an online portal, such as the Salt and Soil Marketplace out of Juneau, which has been expanding into Sitka and other towns in Southeast Alaska. Middle Island Gardens, Gimbal Botanicals, and a couple of other Sitka businesses have used Salt and Soil Marketplace, so it’s not a new concept. How it works for Sitka is vendors post their products online, and from Tuesday through Thursday Sitka residents go online and order what they want, with a delivery usually on Saturday.

This is great and relatively easy, except you lose the community aspect of the market when it’s online. Also, the Sitka Farmers Market serves as a business incubator, and we lose that when we can’t have a market.

There’s another thing we lose, and that’s the ability to accept WIC farmers market coupons and SNAP Alaska Quest EBT cards, which is how we get local produce into the hands of lower-income Sitkans. We are still trying to work that problem out. We want to get fresh local produce into this part of the community, because Sitka has some major inequality with about one in every six residents on some form of food assistance program. Our mission is “to increase the amount of locally harvested and produced food into the diets of Southeast Alaskans,” so we have to make sure we include getting food to lower income people.

We will come up with a plan of some sort to make sure we do get produce into the hands of all Sitkans, but we have to be conscious of not spreading the coronavirus. It may mean we donate produce to a local food bank for distribution, or we donate some produce to WIC/SNAP beneficiaries and skip the normal reimbursement we’d get from the state. We have our White E grant to match WIC/SNAP benefits, so we can use that grant to help distribute the food, and absorb some of the loss through our general fund. It’s within our mission, and we can afford to do it for a few months.

Ideally, we will host our Sitka Farmers Markets as normal. But these are unusual times. We will look at what’s happening in mid-May, and we will make a further announcement then as to what our plans are. Hopefully we will be recruiting vendors for our market. If not, we will start setting up an account so people can order produce online.

If you have any questions, feel free to call Sitka Local Foods Network board chairman Charles Bingham at 623-7660 or email sitkalocalfoodsnetwork@gmail.com.