The beginning of farmers market season is basically a rite of passage into summer for much of Missoula. For years, the Garden City’s outdoor marketplaces have been a place where community members gather, listen to music, browse vendor booths, and turn strangers into friends.
But the opening of Missoula's farmers markets is going to look a lot different this year, as organizers work to modify operations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, some Missoulians are taking more of an interest in growing their own produce as people avoid grocery stores and grapple with more time on their hands with the last frost approaching.
The Missoula Farmers Market and the Clark Fork River Market are both planning to pare down services to offer only produce, meat and dairy, while also adding online ordering for curbside pickup, so they can still open under the county's restrictions, which are subject to change throughout the summer.
"We don't want to see this virus come back strong in this area because we've opened up too soon or we've opened up with practices that aren't making it safe," said Kirsten Hands, manager of the Clark Fork River Market. "So as a market, we were looking at not having prepared vendors, not having music, not having our cottage food industry."
Hands said the Missoula City-County Health Department’s most recent order had classified farmers markets as events, putting them in the same category as the fair, concerts or brew fests because they don’t occur regularly and draw large crowds. However, the United States Department of Agriculture and Montana Department of Agriculture have both deemed agriculture as essential, with the state department considering farmers markets akin to grocery stores.
"I understand that the way we run is a little bit different because the Clark Fork Market is an event and we have other things besides agriculture … people come down to the farmers market as a social event, and we are very cognizant and aware of that,” Hands said.
Yet, farmers markets are an essential steam of revenue for many local farmers, some of whom have already lost at least a month's worth of their income for the year because they have not been able to sell to local restaurants.
“A lot of these farmers depend on the market to make a lot of their income, so it's really an economic necessity for them,” said Meredith Printz of the Missoula Farmers Market.
Many farmers started sowing seeds months ago, and it’s important to get that produce and other agricultural products from local ranchers out to the public so it doesn’t go to waste.
That’s why both the Missoula Farmers Market and the Clark Fork River Market are working with the health department to modify their operations and add online options.
The markets are still finalizing the details of how they will operate the in-person markets and expect to finalize their plans in the next week or two.
In the meantime, the markets are each working on getting online ordering set up so that people can can pre-order their food and swing by to pick it up. Customers using federal SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and WIC (Women, Infants and Children) benefits or aging services coupons will also be able to order online. Printz said they are also looking into the potential of delivery.
It’s still hard to know what in-person markets will look like, but Hands said they are considering spreading out booths with at least six feet between each, which would cut the market size down by about 40% of their vendors. They would also use six-foot markings in walkways to help customers maintain their distance, create one-way traffic flow, and control the market’s perimeter to ensure they maintain group sizes within the current restrictions.
Customers may also tell vendors what they would like, instead of hand selecting produce for themselves. Vendors would be expected to use masks and gloves and be encouraged to put their own hand washing stations in place at their booths.
Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick has also been working with the markets and health department to come up with a plan to open. Slotnick said he sells produce from the farm he lives on at the market.
“This has been part of my life for almost 30 years, so I will miss it but this is the right thing to do right now,” Slotnick said.
Printz said she’s unsure what business will be like, but she knows the demand is there.
She said she received around 75 emails expressing interest in online ordering in just a few days after she posted on social media to let people know the Missoula Farmers Market would not be opening as planned on May 2.
“There are a lot of people that are interested in purchasing local foods,” Printz said.
Printz said she has also heard a lot of people express interest in plant starts for their own gardens and has heard of seed companies having a hard time keeping seeds in stock.
County Rail Farms, a small operation west of Missoula that sells at both markets, is one of many local farms offering plant starts that people can order and pick up to grow in their own garden.
Tracy Potter-Fins, the farm’s owner, said the farm’s crop plan is not changing, but they are thinking of different options for distribution.
“It’s really hard to predict because it’s so early in the season, so we decided to just stick with what we’re doing with our field plans and try to foster and keep relationships that we have with various distributors and folks in Missoula and our farm stand,” Potter-Fins said.
“We’re trying to make those relationships as robust as we can if farmers markets aren’t open or aren't as populated as they have been other years, which I think is more likely.”
Potter-Fins said they don’t have many crops ready yet, but she has had a few customers stopping by the contactless farm stand to pick up produce such as shallots and starters such as kale and rainbow chard.
Potter-Fins said she’s also had some reassurance after getting a small business loan.
“I know that I can pay my employees, and from what I’ve seen in terms of local food support, we’ll be fine,” she said. “But if we’re not, the important thing is that we’re growing food for people who want it and need it.”
Genevieve Jessop Marsh, of Garden City Harvest, said she’s also seen an uptick in interest in local foods and home gardening this season.
She said they have a higher number of people on their waiting list for community garden plots, and already sold out CSAs, or community-supported agriculture systems, which allow consumers to subscribe to farms and pick up produce each week.
Although Garden City Harvest has sold out of CSAs, Jessop Marsh said many local farmers have their own CSAs.
About 30% of Garden City Harvest’s 800 gardeners depend on their gardens as their main food source, and Jessop Marsh expects that number will go up this year as more people facing financial hardships rely on their garden plots.
Garden City Harvest is also offering virtual workshops to help people be successful in home gardening.
“There are so many common mistakes that if you avoid, you will have a lot more success,” she said. “Like a lot of people want to plant their tomatoes before the first frost, which is at the end of May, or mid-May, but you want to wait till after that.”
Although it’s early in the season, a number of people browsed the greenhouses at Pink Grizzly last week.
Shane Clouse, co-owner of Pink Grizzly, said he hasn’t seen a huge change in the number of customers, although he said it’s warmer than it was this time last year so some people are getting an earlier start on their gardens.
Getting an early start on things was Meg Denny’s exact plan when she visited Pink Grizzly last week to buy tomatoes and peppers. She’s also planning on getting some medicinal herbs from Piney Mountain Herbals, a business that is normally at the farmers market.
“It was something I was planning to do anyway, but I’m maybe being a little more ambitious and I have more time,” Denny said.
Clouse said that regardless of what’s going on in the world, it’s always a good idea to learn how to grow some of your own food.
“You don’t need a backyard,” he said. “All you need is a desire to grow something, some soil and a pot.”
Clouse said it’s easy to grow a tomato, a pepper, cilantro, onions and a cucumber, everything you need to make salsa in a pot the size of a five-gallon bucket, which he calls a “salsa pot.”
“I do think that scary things like we’ve just experienced remind us that we’re really very privileged in our county to be able to go to the grocery store and get food, but I think more folks should think about where their food comes from and learn how to grow a bit of it themselves.”