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Farmers markets struggle to regrow business in the face of the pandemic
(Laura Figi)

SFC employee Koko Call greeting customers at the market entrance and sanitizing the hand washing station.

Ben Hasan is the market manager for the Sustainable Food Center, a local nonprofit that operates two area farmers' markets—one in downtown Austin and the other in Sunset Valley.


Even though foot traffic at both markets is down by as much as 70% and pandemic precautions continue to be necessary, Hasan is optimistic.

"Come on down, shop the markets," he said. "We are open, we have been open. We used to say 'rain or shine' and now we've got to add 'global pandemic' but we are here for y'all."

'Better than zero'

Since the onset of COVID-19, the SFC markets have had to make large-scale changes to accommodate customers in a safe way.

Regulations include capping capacity at 150 for the downtown market and 90 for the Sunset Valley market and requiring customers to wash their hands before entering and wearing a face mask while at the market. Vendors are also no longer permitted to offer food samples, must keep hand sanitizer at their station and are encouraged to minimize interactions.


Kris Olsen, owner of Milagro Family Farm, has been doing the downtown SFC market for 12 years and always looks forward to seeing his customers.(Laura Figi)


This is rough for some vendors, like Milagro Farms owner Kris Olsen, who said he misses being able to interact with his regular customers. "Before [COVID-19], I was hugging and kissing my customers," he said. "That's not going on now."

Olsen's sales are down 40% to 50% and he has lost over half of his contracts due to restaurant closures, some of which are permanent. "Before [COVID-19], it was pretty much I could sell eggs, many eggs, to whoever I wanted," he said. "Now I've got to work to make sure I sell them all."

But Olsen has been working at the market for 12 years and said he doesn't plan to stop anytime soon. "It's better than zero," he said. "The demand for eggs is still there so I'm selling my eggs. I'm thankful for that."

'Shifting to change'

SFC is a nonprofit and relies on weekly booth fees from vendors to pay staff and cover market costs. With a decrease in the number of vendors and customers, there is less money to go around.

The organization has also had to expand the monthly budget by thousands of dollars to accommodate COVID-19 precautions.

"There's a huge amount of uncertainty across the board," Hasan said. "There's a lot of shifting we're going to have to do to keep our market model sustainable and, yeah, that's nervous-making, but we've still got customer numbers and vendor numbers that are at a new, stable normal for COVID. In that sense, it's about shifting to change."

Not all farmers and ranchers have seen their sales decrease, however, especially if they offer products that were hard to come by at the beginning of the pandemic.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw across the board our markets were stocked," Hasan said. "We had food at a time in which you could not get things like eggs, bread and produce. We had that here because of the resiliency of local producers."

Long game

The boom at the beginning of the pandemic was short-lived for most vendors.

As customers are no longer permitted to eat in the market, prepared food vendors have seen better days.


Tamale Addiction manager Julio Toledano sells tamales both hot and frozen at the market.(Laura Figi)


But Julio Toldano, manager of Tamale Addiction, said he has been able to sell more frozen tamales to make up for the loss of catering opportunities and decrease in sales.

"I think [the farmer's market] is a very secure way to invest your money because if they do not stop in this situation, they will never stop for anything," he said.

Although the market is still adjusting to the new normal, many vendors are just happy to be there.

Cake and Spoon owner Melissa Brinckmann has been working at the market for 11 years. For now, her sales are consistent.

"We've been very fortunate," Brinckmann said. "Our customers have been very supportive and people seem to keep coming back."

Want to read more stories like this one? Start every day with a quick look at what's happening in Austin. Sign up for Austonia.com's free daily morning email.

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