SIDNEY — The Great Sidney Farmer’s Market opens Saturday, May 23, with regulations in place to keep customers and vendors safe—but not everyone is pleased with the new set of rules.
“You know, we’ve been in the produce business for over 30 years, and nothing is more personal to a person — to most people — than selecting their own produce. You know, they’ll grab a frozen box and throw it in their cart, whatever, but when it comes to produce, they want to see it, they want to touch it, before they put it in a bag,” Tom Brown of Hilltop Harvest Farm said. “Under the rules, grocery stores can continue doing that, but farmer’s markets aren’t allowed to do that.”
Aside from customers not being allowed to handle produce until after purchase, vendors are spaced roughly 20 feet apart from each other and are asked to put up tents to give a visual barrier with social distancing. Vendors are asked to limit what they showcase on tables, and assign one person to assist with customers and one to cash customers out. Cashiers are required to wear gloves and sanitize between customers. All vendors working must wear masks. Customers may not enter the vendor’s space, and must remain six feet apart — places will be marked in chalk for customers to stand, to help ensure social distancing.
Brown’s issue comes with not being able to allow customers to touch the produce before they purchase it — primarily because grocery stores are not subjected to the same regulations.
“Grocery stores, it’s business as usual — people come in, pick up their produce, put it in the bag, and go pay for it,” Brown said. “We’re not allowed to let a customer touch the produce until we bag it and they pay for it.”
Brown has seen both sides of the business, having grown produce and sold it to produce managers at grocery stores in the past. The new regulations, he feels, heavily favor grocery stores and put independent vendors at farmer’s markets under a disadvantage.
“I know both sides of the market, and for many years, the produce managers were hungry for any kind of produce we could get them because they knew that it would sell. It’s a major income for the produce companies, and produce companies have never liked farmer’s markets. I’ve heard it personally, from produce managers years ago,” Brown said. “They do not like local markets, they do not like farmer’s markets, because it took sales away from them.”
Before the safety regulations at farmer’s markets came out from the Ohio Department of Agriculture, Brown had researched on the CDC’s website so he could get an idea of what he and his family should prepare for once farmer’s markets opened and they could sell produce. Currently, the CDC reports that there is no evidence that supports the transmission of COVID-19 associated with food, and recommends 20 seconds of handwashing with soap and warm water before preparing food. (Link to information: https://www.cdc.gov/foodsafety/newsletter/food-safety-and-Coronavirus.html).
“Washing it is important, there’s numerous experts that have said that simply washing it with water will do wonders. You don’t need to have soap on the produce. So, there’s nothing scientific that would substantiate and support this rule, and that’s what I’m complaining about and trying to spread the word on,” Brown said.
The regulations in place for farmer’s markets bothered Brown so much that he sought out state politicians to air his grievances and get some more concrete answers on why these rules were put in place for vendors at local markets, but not grocery stores. He contacted Lt. Gov. John Husted by email, and received no answer. He found a couple of phone numbers on the internet, called them, and left messages. No one returned his calls. He emailed his state representative Susan Manchester, and never got a reply. With no one left to answer his questions, he turned toward Facebook to vent his frustrations to his customers, in the hopes that someone would hear him and word would get around.
“That’s what really ticked me off. It’s like people are hiding from this, you know, and I thought we were all supposed to keep a communication going here. And so, last week as I was working, I started formulating that post in my brain. It was raining like crazy yesterday, so when I got in the house at lunchtime, I put it down on paper and then I typed it in. I want the word to get out,” Brown said.
The post highlights that Hilltop Harvest Farm will be attending Sidney’s Farmer’s Market this weekend, and that while the state says that the rules barring customers from handling produce are in place to ensure food safety, the CDC reports no evidence supporting the transmission of COVID-19 with food, grocery stores are not subjected to the same regulations, and it feels as though the state is discriminating against local farmers and vendors in favor of grocery stores. It was the first post Brown has made in the years Hilltop Harvest Farm has had a Facebook page.
“We’ve had the Facebook page for years, and my wife or my daughter would make the posts. It’s the word-of-mouth of today — let people know what we’re gonna have at Sidney, what we’re gonna have at our farm market. I have never made a post on Facebook until yesterday. I was so fed up with this situation,” Brown said.
While Hilltop Harvest Farm will be attending the farmer’s market in Sidney, if business is negatively impacted by the regulations, Brown said they might pull their business and take it elsewhere.
“We’re going into this open, and like I said, we’ve been down there 25 years. Sidney has been good to us in the past. But will business pick up? Will people want to come down and be restricted? My only hope is that the customers that I’ve built up confidence in for years will trust me, because I won’t sell something I wouldn’t buy myself, and I’ve always told people that. But at the same token, we’re being put under unfair rules. You know, it’s not a level playing field, so I don’t know how customers will react, and if our sales go down the tube, we may not come back for another year because I’m not going to put up with the crap,” Brown said. “I hate to say that, because we’ve built up a lot of good customers and a lot of good contacts, but common sense isn’t common anymore, and I’m not going to watch my sales go down the tube because I’m being discriminated against.”
According Sidney Alive Executive Director Amy Breinich, the guidelines in place at Sidney’s farmer’s market all come straight from the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
“We didn’t add any additional restrictions because we want the market to be as ‘normal’ as possible, but know that if we open, we must follow the State Order to remain open. We don’t like that we have to implement these precautions, but at the end of the day, we have to do what we have to do to be open,” Breinich said.
Among the frustrations that come with the guidelines, because of the distance measures put in place between vendors, the farmer’s market can’t accommodate the usual 65 to 75 vendors it has in the past. Breinich says that there has been frustration from both customers and vendors as a result, but there’s been a lot of support and understanding for the farmer’s market.
“Our vendors are taking it in stride, because again, at the end of the day either we comply or we cannot operate the market. One theme through all of this is that we wish the big box stores were held to the same standards of farmers markets and other small businesses,” Breinich said. “The community has been very supportive and sympathetic to the adversity we are facing with the opening of the market, and we are very fortunate to have such a supportive community of vendors and customers.”
More information is available on the Sidney Alive and Great Sidney Farmer’s Market Facebook pages as well as sidneyalive.org/farmersmarket.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4825.