Virginia farmers market supporters are celebrating this week. Governor Ralph Northam signed House Bill 2302 into law making farmers market food and beverage products and sales essential during a state of emergency.

“We are elated that Virginia now officially recognizes the essential role of farmers markets in feeding their communities,” said Dr. Kim Hutchinson, Executive Director of the Virginia Farmers Market Association (VAFMA). “This has been a key priority of our work this year” she added.

During the onset of COVID-19, VAFMA quickly realized the importance of needing to have farmers markets deemed essential during an emergency. Essential businesses were allowed to remain open. Also, insurance companies continued to cover the COVID related claims of essential businesses. At the time, national supply chains were compromised, grocery stores experienced shortages and Virginians were seeking locally raised and prepared food at higher rates than the state had seen in decades. Meanwhile, many farmers and food producers were scrambling to reach their customers because farmers markets – their primary sales outlets – were shut down.

“Grocery stores sell food. Farmers markets sell food. Grocery stores stayed open. Why close the farmer’s markets?” said Terry Osborn of Corvallis Farms in Culpepeper, Virginia. “Our crops were planted. We were ready for market and then heard the markets might not open. In many cases, local farms supply higher quality products than the grocery stores. We felt unfairly singled out.”

VAFMA worked with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Virginia Department of Health and the Governor’s office to adjust market policies and procedures to ensure that food could be distributed as safely as possible. Markets added online ordering, curbside pickup, drive thru pickup, hand washing stations, social distancing, masking and other safety measures.

However, many municipal farmers markets, markets located on municipal properties, and markets run by state employees remained closed. Because markets were not deemed essential, there were long delays in getting these and other markets open. Farmers at these markets had already planted the crops that were ready to come to market and they were left looking for other outlets and wondering about their future viability.

“As a market manager I was very surprised that farmers markets were not initially treated the same as grocery stores” said Howard Herman of the Falls Church Farmers Market. “They are often held outdoors where social distancing is much easier to maintain and markets are excellent sources of healthy locally grown or produced fruits, vegetables, meat, milk, baked goods, eggs, cheese and juices” he added.

HB 2302 provides that Virginia farmers markets will be treated the same as grocery stores during a state of emergency declared by the Governor. If grocery stores are allowed to remain open as essential businesses, then so will farmers markets. Chief Patron, Delegate Scott Wyatt, submitted the bill after hearing from farmers in his district.

“Farmers markets need to be open at such an important time, when the supply chain halted, and Virginia farmers are still producing the much-needed fresh food” said Wyatt. “Farmers markets remaining open helps our local farmers, and all Virginians, including those who live in our cites, who depend on fresh, nutritious, locally grown Virginia products” he added.

VAFMA lobbied lawmakers and testified in support of the bill. The non-profit membership organization also rallied market managers, farmers, vendors and supporters to add their names to a letter urging the Governor to sign the legislation into law.

The essential nature of farmers markets is underscored by the increase in food insecurity during the pandemic. It is estimated that an additional 446,000 Virginians have become food insecure during the pandemic, in addition to the 850,000 Virginians who were already struggling. Many farmers markets accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and also provide nutrition incentives through match funds, making fresh food more affordable. Through these programs if someone uses $30 of their SNAP benefits, they can get another $30 worth of fruits and vegetables free.

“During any type of emergency, food security becomes a top priority for everyone,” said Hugo Mogollon, Executive Director of FRESHFARM and President of VAFMA’s Board of Directors. “The passage of this legislation demonstrates that the state recognizes the vital role that farmers markets play as part of Virginian’s safety net while keeping our farmers and food producers in business.”

Mogollon added “This outcome also reinforces the importance of the Virginia Farmers Market Association to the state’s farmers markets. VAFMA ensures that their voices are heard by the Governor, the General Assembly and state agencies.”

VAFMA would like to thank Delegate Scott Wyatt, chief patron of HB 2302, and his co-patrons (below), for working to keep farmers markets open in future emergencies!

Scott Wyatt (chief patron)
Kathy J. Byron
Mark L. Cole
Hyland F. “Buddy” Fowler, Jr.
John J. McGuire, III
Margaret B. Ransone
Wendell S. Walker
R. Lee Ware
Michael J. Webert
Bill D. Wiley

J. Chapman Petersen
Frank M. Ruff, Jr.