A most unusual season

Producers at the Allen County Farmers Market have had to adapt to numerous challenges this year, among them, the coronavirus pandemic and a long period of dry weather.

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August 7, 2020 - 3:36 PM

A line of eager customers forms at the Heck family produce booth Thursday at the Allen County Farmers Market. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

The fruits of Terri Johnson’s persistence have begun to pay off this summer 

Johnson, of Moran, is in her second year as a vendor at the weekly Allen County Farmers Markets in Iola and Humboldt. 

She’s among the few sellers who make it to all three weekly sessions, the Tuesday and Thursday afternoon sessions along North State Street and on the square, respectively, and Saturday mornings in downtown Humboldt.

“I think I’m doing better just because they’ve seen me before,” Johnson said. “But I was very worried at the start of this year.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic came just a few weeks before the markets were scheduled to open in April.

That forced organizers to adjust on the fly. 

For a spell, customer numbers were limited to prevent over-crowding, and non-essential food items — arts and craft items, for example — were prohibited until late June.

Part of Johnson’s inventory is wax melts, which she usually only sells before the proverbial dog days of summer.

“Then it gets too hot and melts the wax,” she chuckled.

So Johnson adapted, and bumped up her other specialties, jellies, jams, spices, and now an assortment of baked goods.

Terri Johnson of Moran is in her second year as a market vendor.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

“I’m new to the area,” Johnson said. “I figured this was a way to meet people.”

The strategy has paid off handsomely. Johnson has a regular stream of customers at each site. (Humboldt is likely where she’s busiest on a regular basis.)

PRODUCERS have had other headaches on top of the coronavirus threat to deal with in 2020.

A prolonged dry spell threatened to prematurely curtail the growing season for gardeners and farmers alike before a slightly damper and cooler weather pattern arrived in late July.

And with the early restrictions on both sellers and buyers, total revenue generated at the Farmers Markets has been down about 30 percent from past years, noted Debbie Bearden, county coordinator.

Ben Feldman, writing for the Farmers Market Coalition, said the COVID-19 pandemic has been both a blessing and a curse.

On the bright side, shopping outdoors in a farmers market, in the fresh air and shorter supply chain, customers are less exposed to potential coronavirus infections.

Ashton Heck prices watermelons during the Allen County Farmers Market in downtown Iola. He attributes increased sales to the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing out that more folks are staying home to eat. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

“But changes come with both increased costs and decreased revenue for organizations that run farmers markets,” he wrote, noting that a recent FMC member survey reported 74% of respondents reported decreased income, while more than 90% said their costs were higher to combat exposure.

A similar survey in California reported 20% of the respondents there were concerned they might not survive the economic impact of COVID-19.

ASHTON HECK of Heck Family Produce — usually the busiest vendor at the weekly sessions in Iola — notes farmers markets are more vital than ever in a coronavirus pandemic.

Deb Smail sorts out jars of honey her husband, Ron, produces. Smail said honey sales have been strong this summer at the farmers market. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

“COVID hasn’t slowed us down,” he said. “Actually, it went the other way and we’re busier than we’ve ever been.”

He points to the added emphasis on consuming healthy fruits and vegetables, and the fact fewer folks are eating out at restaurants on a regular basis.

“Plus, we’re able to irrigate everything,” he said.

DEPENDING on how the weather cooperates, the market sessions on State Street and Humboldt likely will end by the end of August.

The Thursday market sessions in downtown Iola typically run through mid-October.

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