This is an open letter to the La Grande city council and city manager who suspended the farmers market’s permit to use Max Square, a city park, due to concerns about COVID.
If you’re concerned about the market and want to see it back in Max Square, please email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5pm Monday, June 29th with the subject line “Public Comments for July 1st City Council Meeting.” You can also reach the city councilors directly:
To the La Grande City Manager and City Councilors,
First, thank you for your public service during this difficult time. I know you are facing the same personal challenges that the COVID outbreak has brought as well as leadership challenges. You are working to make decisions that balance concerns about the recent outbreak with the impacts restrictions place on local people and businesses.
As a small business owner and farmer, I too am working to balance the need to protect my employees’ health and paychecks with the need to keep my business viable. I raise produce in Cove and sell it to local restaurants, retail establishments, and directly to my customers at our on-farm farmstand in Cove and at the La Grande Farmers Market in Max Square.
The early shut down of restaurants highly impacted my revenue, but I was able to make some adjustments and find sales outlets in new places. However, when the city suspended the farmers market’s permit to use Max Square last week, I had to start cutting employee hours. The farmers market makes up 60 percent of my sales income.
I am baffled by the city’s decision for three reasons:
- We know that outdoor shopping is the safest way to get groceries,
- The farmers market followed all the mask, distancing, and hand washing requirements laid out in May by the city without complaint, and
- Neither the city nor the mayor have provided evidence, reasoning, or timeline for the permit suspension or ability to discuss returning to Max Square.
There are many reasons that the farmers market permit should be reinstated by the city council at the July 1st meeting.
The market follows precautions–better than grocery stores
Our market manager worked with city employees to adopt strict mask and distancing rules, which are enforced at the market.
- All vendors wear masks and we provide masks to any customer who doesn’t bring one.
- We provide a mobile hand washing station for vendors and customers.
- Vendors provide hand sanitizer for customer to use.
- We mark six foot spacing in front of booths to help folks line up at a distance.
- We space vendor booths 10 feet apart (when in Max Square and on 4th street.)
- Vendors do not allow customers access to the produce or goods to avoid touching and handling.
- The market is outside where spread of COVID is unlikely if folks are wearing masks and distancing.
There are many more guidelines and rules we are following which can be found on the homepage of the farmers market website: www.lagrandefarmersmarket.org. In my experience shopping at other grocery stores around La Grande, most of these precautions are not being made.
The city’s suspension makes the market less safe
Due to the dedication of market employees and board and the generosity of EONI, we were able to hold the farmers market in the EONI parking lot last week. This space is very crowed and does not allow us to have 10 feet of distance between market stands. It also leaves less room for customers to socially distance.
Current space constraints will permanently hurt the market
The market will be permanently damaged by a prolonged exclusion from Max Square.
First, the market manager told me yesterday she doesn’t have enough room at the EONI parking lot to accommodate all the produce vendors. One vendor who has been coming to the farmers market for the entire 40 years it has been around doesn’t have a spot for Saturday.
Second, while the move around the corner to the EONI parking lot seems small, it is certain customers will not find the market. In my experience working with the Baker City Farmers Market, a two block venue change took years for customers to return at previous levels. My experience talking to other members of the Oregon Farmers Market Association confirms that market venue changes have lasting, deep affects on sales and the customer base.
Produce is on now–it won’t wait and people need it.
The produce is ready now. If vendors cannot get a space at the market or don’t come because the venue change has decreased customer traffic, the produce will go to waste. This impacts the viability of small farms and small businesses like me who are already struggling due to the loss of other sales outlets.
People need this produce now. The farmers market is an essential business that feeds people of all incomes across our community. The market has a robust SNAP program and dedicated customers. We also provide a SNAP match of $10 per customer per visit, which means low-income customers are able to make their SNAP dollars go further. This is particularly important as more people are utilizing SNAP and unemployment continues to rise.
Vendors & community members rely on the market economically
Due to the rippling impacts on our other sales outlets, the farmers market has become even more essential to farmers. People are staying at home, cooking more, and buying more produce. The market could buoy our struggling small farm businesses–unless the customers can’t find the market or vendors can’t attend the market due to space restrictions.
Furthermore, many of the vendors who attend the farmers market are already on the edge financially. For decades the market has provided a place and a customer base for community members to make extra money selling produce, baked goods, art, woodworking and more. Right now, the market is only allowing food vendors to attend in our restricted space, which means folks who could really use the extra market cash now are shut out.
I urge the city manager and city council to work with the farmers market to reinstate our permit and allow us back at Max Square. We are willing to following any rules that will keep our customers, vendors and the community safe. We want to feed people and keep our businesses afloat and keep the market open. 2020 is the La Grande Farmers Market’s 40th anniversary, and it is more essential than ever to keep it open.
Nella Mae Parks, Nella Mae’s Farm, Cove
Former La Grande Farmers Market board president