Like the farms they partner with, Western North Carolina’s weekly outdoor tailgate markets follow a seasonal calendar, with the main market season typically kicking off the first week of April. But like every other thing in this currently upside-down, inside-out world, tailgate markets are struggling to find the new normal for serving farmers and consumers.
The first local market to confront challenges imposed by COVID-19 was the popular Saturday morning Asheville City Market, which is operated by the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project. The onset of regulations prohibiting large indoor gatherings abruptly canceled its March 14 market inside the Masonic Temple and will delay its annual spring move outdoors to Market Street, originally scheduled for April 4.
“The scale of the disruption from all of this to farmers and consumers is so big, we had to move quickly to find a solution,” says Charlie Jackson, ASAP executive director. “Farmers have produce to sell, bakers and makers have product, and we have a very passionate clientele. We need to connect them all.”
ASAP found an ideal connector in its board member Duane Adams, whose day job is at A-B Tech. “I reached out to Duane right away, he put me in touch with the facilities manager; the next morning we were at the site, and by that afternoon, we had their approval,” says Jackson.
On March 19, ASAP announced the ASAP Farmers Market at A-B Tech, an interim outlet for local farmers and vendors displaced by market closings. The new market takes place in designated parking areas of A-B Tech with a system that admits a limited number of shoppers, maintains safe distancing and eliminates the exchange of currency or credit cards by implementing online payment.
Two lanes of cars were already lined up at the entrance on Persistence Drive by 8:30 a.m. for the first market on March 21. ASAP staff members in orange vests directed the flow of cars and people, while 20 vendors were set up at tables stacked with bagged produce, bread, cheese and glorious, fresh tulips.
Tou Lee, co-owner with his wife, Chue, of Lee’s One Fortune Farm, expressed relief. “This is the heavy growing season for our greens. We are glad they set this up so fast. And you can’t beat the view,” he says, pointing cheerfully to the mountains in the distance.
Jackson reports that the first market went “amazingly well.” While he doesn’t plan to add more vendors, ASAP is looking at coordinating an additional market day to accommodate demand.
The North Asheville Tailgate Market, Asheville’s oldest tailgate market, will not be able to open on the UNC Asheville campus as originally scheduled on Saturday, April 4. For now, says NATM Executive Director Shay Amber, a directory of market vendors is posted at northashevilletailgatemarket.com and shared in the market’s e-newsletter and via social media so customers can reach out to them directly for orders. She also administers the Asheville Online Farmers Market group on Facebook (avl.mx/713).
Quinn Asteak, manager of the West Asheville Tailgate Market, says she originally anticipated a full roster of vendors on the grounds of Grace Baptist Church for the market’s 2020 season launch on Tuesday, April 7. “But at this point it’s unpredictable. Our vendors are ready to go, but it could be a last-minute decision, so everyone should keep an eye on our website and social media,” she advises.
“Like all the other markets, we feel strongly that we have to do our best to open in some way for our farmers and our customers. These neighborhood markets are a big part of what makes a place feel like home.”