When it came to managing the mounting challenges of COVID-19 in early 2020, Jessica Dodson, manager of the year-round River Arts District Farmers Market, took President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to speak softly and carry a big stick — literally. “I had a 6-foot stick I carried with me around the market grounds,” Dodson says. “One woman took it from me, hit her husband with it and gave it back. It was funny, but I was actually using it to show people what 6 feet looked like as we tried to enforce distancing.”
March is traditionally the time of year when markets are wrapping up their vendor application process and finalizing preparations for a new season. But in March 2020, the sudden onset of the pandemic put local markets in a temporary tailspin until they figured out new protocols and approaches. A year later, market managers are poised to launch a new season equipped with hard-won wisdom and hope for a fruitful year.
Sarah Hart, communications coordinator for the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, which produces the Saturday Asheville City Market in the Masonic Temple during the winter and on Market Street spring through fall, recalls that on March 12 of last year, ASAP Director Charlie Jackson sent an email to staff members instructing them to prepare for working remotely. “The next morning, we met to determine what to do about the Saturday market,” says Hart. “It was a hugely fraught time.”
Hart and the team made the tough decision to cancel the March 14 Asheville City Market, which was about to wrap up its indoor season at the Masonic Temple, and spent the next week seeking an alternate outdoor location to their traditional takeover of several blocks of Market Street downtown. On March 21, 2020, the market rebooted as the pandemic-friendly ASAP Farmers Market in a parking lot at A-B Tech.
“Farmers not only had winter produce, but they had already planted for spring,” Hart points out. “It felt dire to us to set up a place to sell and that ASAP figure it out so all the other markets that were supposed to start in April and May had a model to look to.”
As local, state and national policies changed and evolved, ASAP gathered information and learned new practices to share with the roughly 100 other market managers in its service region via regular Zoom meetings and a dedicated Facebook group. Areas addressed included mapping, masking, social distancing — with or without a 6-foot stick — signage, payments, packaging and guidance on ways to create no-touch zones.
Many local markets instituted a mask-wearing mandate even before the state imposed one, and similar to grocery stores and restaurants, they sometimes experienced opposition. “I was physically threatened,” Dodson recalls.
At the time, the RAD market was in its first year of operating year-round at Pleb Urban Winery, operating outdoors during spring, summer and fall and moving most vendors indoors for the winter. In March, Dodson decided to transition to outside operations earlier than planned, temporarily eliminating crafters and body products vendors to ensure space for growers and bakers. “The focus was on feeding our community the best we could,” she explains.
As Quinn Asteak, manager of the West Asheville Tailgate Market, prepared for an altered operating model last spring, she was grateful for precedents. Year-round tailgate markets, including the ASAP and RAD markets, had led the way in instituting practices like cordoning off shopping areas, enforcing capacity limits with staff-monitored entrances and exits, implementing distance markers and accepting cashless payments.
“At first, I wondered if we could even do it,” says Asteak. “But our board is made up of vendors and farmers who had fields full of food, so not having a market was not an option. We really looked to what others did and what worked for them.”
WATM’s 2020 season kicked off as scheduled on April 7 — though, like many other markets, it limited vendor capacity to about half to enforce distancing. It also eliminated sales of market tokens from its information booth.
“Many vendors who did not have systems to accept credit cards had to quickly pivot to get a square or a Venmo account,” Asteak says. “But it really ended up being great for customers who don’t carry cash.”
She notes that the market’s program to accept federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits remained uninterrupted — and thanks to an ASAP grant, it was also able to double SNAP benefits for market shoppers in 2020.
Asteak says that while some vendors at the WATM struggled in 2020, others had a banner year. Overall, the season was surprisingly healthy for the market, thanks in large part to restructured vendor fees, customer donations and grant support.
Last year, Asheville’s longest-running and largest market, the North Asheville Tailgate Market, delayed its 2020 opening from the first Saturday of April to May 2, says market manager Janice Brewer, hired this March. Though she was not onboard at NATM last spring, she confirms that the market also reduced its number of vendors, moving from one parking lot to another on the UNC Asheville campus.
This season, says Brewer, the market will continue to follow safety guidance from UNC Asheville and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while increasing its vendor roster from 32 to about 38. She feels hopeful about gradually accommodating more day vendors as the season continues and is pleased to be able to bring back live acoustic music.
Also, informed by her previous work at Root Cause Farm, a Fairview nonprofit dedicated to addressing food insecurity, Brewer aims to implement a social justice lens in planning future education and farmer support efforts. “I am excited to work on growing equity at North Asheville Tailgate Market and other markets in the region,” she says.
Dodson predicts much the same for the RAD market. “I’m sorting through over 100 [vendor] applications,” she says. “During the pandemic, so many people decided to try something new, and markets are a great way to connect with consumers directly, even if we are masked and 6 feet apart.”
The RAD market will transition to operating fully outdoors the first Wednesday in May, spreading out to help accommodate that big bump in applications. “We will be in our full glory at about 40 vendors,” Dodson says.
Hart says that on Market Street, the Asheville City Market had room for 60 vendors. But the ASAP market currently averages 34-36 per week. She anticipates it will close out the year at A-B Tech with plans for a 2022 return to Market Street. “The Asheville City Market was always envisioned as a walkable downtown market,” says Hart. “And downtown is where we want to be.”
For local and regional market locations, operating days and hours and participating vendors, visit avl.mx/5uh.