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.

Sitka Local Foods Network seeks manager for 2020 Sitka Farmers Markets (application date extended to Jan. 15)

The Sitka Local Foods Network is seeking a manager to coordinate the 2020 Sitka Farmers Markets this summer. This is a contract position, and the manager receives a small compensation, depending on experience, for his or her work organizing the farmers markets this summer. The manager receives a monthly check for the five months from May through September.

We’ve been lucky to have the same market manager, Nina Vizcarrondo, for the past three summers. But U.S. Coast Guard relocation is taking her away from us. We hope to have the new manager hired in time to do some training with Nina (and assistant manager Charles Bingham, who is staying) before Nina and her family leave Sitka this spring. We thank Nina and her family for their help rebuilding our market.

This will be the 13th year of operation for the Sitka Farmers Market, which features 6-8 markets during the summer from July through September, plus the annual farm stand at the Running of the Boots costumed fun run fundraiser in late September. Market dates for 2020 haven’t been confirmed yet, but they usually run from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on selected Saturdays at the Alaska Native Brotherhood Founders Hall.

The farmers markets feature booths from local farmers/gardeners, local fishermen, and artisans and craftspeople. These events are great Sitka gathering places, and we promote local foods and other local goods at the markets.

In recent years we made some changes to the market, and those have helped it grow into one of the top markets in the state. We have an experienced assistant manager, who will help ease the load for the manager. The manager needs to be able to commit to being available for all of the markets this summer. In addition, the market manager needs access to a vehicle with a trailer hitch (we keep our market supplies in a construction trailer) and to the Internet.

The manager’s main duties include recruiting and organizing the vendors for each market, hiring musicians and other entertainment, setting up and taking down the market tents and tables, managing the Sitka Local Foods Network farm stand, recruiting volunteers to help sell produce at the SLFN farm stand, helping the assistant manager make deposits and keep track of WIC/SNAP benefit matches, etc. The assistant manager handles market publicity, helps with set up and take down, helps sell produce, takes photos of people and vendors at the market, makes bank deposits, purchases Alaska Grown products to sell at the market (under consultation with the SLFN board of directors), etc. A detailed description of the market manager duties can be found at the link below. The farmers market manager has been a member of the SLFN board in recent years.

Applications should include a cover letter, resumé and three recommendations, and they are due by 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 15 (this is an extension from the Jan. 8 original deadline). The market manager of the Sitka Farmers Market is a seasonal contract position that reports to the Sitka Local Foods Network board of directors via a board liaison (Amanda Anjum). For more information or to submit applications, contact SLFN board president Charles Bingham at 1-907-623-7660, or you can email the SLFN Board at sitkalocalfoodsnetwork@gmail.com (please put “Sitka Farmers Market Manager” in the subject line).

Once we sign a contract with our market manager, we will announce a couple of meetings for potential vendors. We also will announce in the next few days a spring class on cottage food business basics (in partnership with the UAF Cooperative Extension Service) for those thinking about starting a home-based food business, and students taking that class will receive a reduction on their first table fee from the Sitka Farmers Market in 2020.

• Description of duties for market manager of the Sitka Farmers Market Manager (2020)