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NOFA-VT Asks Farmers Markets Get 'Essential' Designation, Hires Relief Milkers

Two images, on left, people look over fresh produce, and at right, a cow looks up from a hay bale.
Penni Rand, Courtesy
John Dillon, VPR News
On left, Capital City Farmers Market, and on right, a cow at Rockbottom Farm in Strafford. The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont is looking at ways to keep agriculture operations and sales viable through the COVID-19 crisis.

Updated 4:10 p.m. 3/26/2020

Among the services deemed "critical" by Vermont state government during the COVID-19 crisis are retail operations selling food, and agriculture.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont is taking several steps to support those operations, such as advocating for Gov. Phil Scott's administration to include farmers markets in that "critical" service category, plus hiring relief dairy farm milkers.

Are farmers markets part of "critical" services?

In an effort to control the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. Phil Scott announced a "Stay Home, Stay Safe" executive order Tuesday that suspended all in-person business and nonprofit operations, with exceptions for those considered "critical" to public health and safety as well as economic and national security.

Scott’s administration said that grocery stores can remain open, but did not specify until late Wednesday whether the state’s 60 or so farmers markets were in that same category. According to Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts, they are not.

“Outdoor markets would likely attract large gatherings that would congregate close together,” Tebbetts said. “There is risk of person-to-person contact when exchanging goods.”

He added the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets will work with farmers and market managers to set up mail, phone, pick-up and delivery services.

Click here for a comprehensive set of answers to FAQs about the Stay Home, Stay Safe order.

Earlier this week, NOFA-VT market development manager Jennie Porter said the Scott administration requested information about the markets to help decide whether farmers’ markets should be allowed to operate as normal.

“We want farmers markets to be specifically named as an 'essential service,' as they have in many other states at this point, so that customers and communities have confidence in them and so that market leaders aren’t feeling in this weird limbo of, ‘Is this okay or is this not okay,'" Porter said.

According to Porter, the Agency of Agriculture originally advised NOFA-VT to assume farmers’ markets are in the same category as grocery stores. And until Wednesday night, NOFA-VT was telling market managers that they could open and not get in trouble, and was also encouraging markets to cancel music and non-food sales to cut down on social gathering.

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NOFA-VT does not have authority over whether markets open or not, and it is up to each individual market to decide if it will open, and how it will operate. The Bennington Farmers' Market, for instance, announced this week that it would open on April 4 under a pre-order, drive-thru system.

NOFA-VT executive director Grace Oedel said her organization will continue to advocate for the Scott administration to change its mind about farmers markets.

“We are concerned both for eaters and farmers, as markets provide an important local food access point, distribute EBT funds to food-insecure families, and also support farmers via direct sales,” Oedel said. “We see a vast need to invest more in our local food system at this time, not move even more to relying only on large corporate grocery stores as our only food access.”

Providing farmers with milking back up

The average Vermont dairy farmer is almost 60. That makes the industry particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus, which appears to cause more severe illness for older people.  So to prepare for possible worker shortages, NOFA-VT is looking to recruit and pay relief workers who can help with milking if and when the need arises.

And if there’s one thing this pandemic can’t disrupt, it’s a milking schedule.

“The cows need to be milked twice a day. And these are not operations that can stop,” said Oedel, the executive director of NOFA-VT.

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The organization wants to connect farms with people who have prior experience in the dairy industry. The plan is to pay these relief milkers using NOFA’s Farmer Emergency Fund.

“We know there are a lot of people who may be teachers at tech schools or meal professionals or people in other lines of work who may or may not have work right now, and so we see it as a win-win,” Oedel said. “Potentially we could help provide some support for those people and help connect the farmers with relief workers who are needed.”

If you don’t have the experience to help out, you can donate to the emergency fund. Grace Oedel said NOFA-VT is looking to support as many farms as possible.

“This is a service that we’re trying to put out for organic farmers, for conventional farmers, for migrant farmers, this is – we’re all in this together,” she said.

The advocacy group Migrant Justice says it’s collaborating on this effort and also working to make sure the migrant worker community is getting the support it needs right now.

Spokesperson Enrique Balcazar said this means connecting workers with the many local mutual aid efforts that have popped up in recent days.

Find a list of FAQs about the new coronavirus, plus resources, here.

“At times accessing these resources is not so easy for our community,” Balcazar said through an Spanish language interpreter. “There can be fear or confusion. Sometimes the language is an obstacle. So we’re working with a group of volunteers who are sharing information with our community.”

But Balcazar said that despite the COVID-19 crisis, life for Vermont’s migrant workers looks more or less the same.

“Our situation as dairy workers is not changed,” he said. “We have to work 60, 70 hours a week. We are excluded from many labor protections. This is why our work is so important. In this moment, many people are recognizing the importance of agricultural workers, you know? Because we’re the ones that are providing food for the entire country.”

As for the social isolation many Vermonters are now feeling, and the fear of going out into the world? Enrique Balcazar said migrant workers live this day in, day out.

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