Farmers’ markets around Australia have official clearance to go ahead this weekend – and are preparing for a potential onslaught after unprecedented panic buying and hoarding at supermarkets.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said strict new bans on large gatherings to slow the spread of COVID-19 did not apply to supermarkets, food markets, grocery shops, retail outlets and shopping centres.
The term “farmers’ markets” was not specified, leading to confusion and concern.
But the federal Health Department has confirmed to the ABC that farmers’ markets are an essential service.
“Farmers’ markets are currently not banned in the same way as other outdoor gatherings with more than 500 people, as they are providing people with access to a range of food in the same way as a supermarket,” the spokesperson said.
“People visiting markets should use common sense when practising social distancing and maintaining social interactions, avoiding unnecessary contact and moving 1.5 metres from other people where possible.”
Shane Stanley is proprietor of the popular Noosa and Kawana Waters farmers’ markets and his phone has been running hot with calls from people confused about whether the markets would proceed.
He urged people to “keep calm and go to the markets” and said cleaning would increase, with hand sanitisers at most stalls.
“I honestly couldn’t see us getting shut down. We are an essential service and we want to get the fresh food out to everybody. It’s an open space, it’s in the sunlight,” Mr Stanley said.
“We have 100 stallholders who attend our markets. Those stallholders, from our data, employ around six to eight people and then you have contractors on top of that as well.”
Stallholders have been advised that staff members’ duties must be separated so that they are not handling both money and produce.
Food security foremost
Good Harvest Organics runs stalls at both markets.
Their founder, farmer Mick Dan, expressed his relief at the Health Department’s clarification after Sunshine Coast Mayor Mark Jamieson encouraged people to consider attendance at markets “in terms of the numbers that would attend”.
“There are so many people that rely on us to turn up a week in, week out with quality product,” Mr Dan said.
“Those people don’t shop at supermarkets for fruit and vegetables, they shop at farmers’ markets for fruit and vegetables – and the reason for that is because there’s so many less hands in the process.
“Supermarket distribution lines are so long and so complex whereas [at] the farmers’ market, you can pick up food that’s direct from a farmer.”
Mr Dan said the number of customers ordering home deliveries online had jumped by 50 per cent.
Taking the right precautions
It was a similar story at Shambhala Farm, Doonan, about 20 kilometres inland from Noosa, where Craig and wife Chrissy had extra team members working around the clock to keep up with delivery demands.
They wore gloves and masks as they packed boxes for 60 new home-delivery customers.
Mr Hubbard said it was “absolutely essential” Shambhala Farm maintained its presence at the Noosa and Kawana farmers’ markets “to provide a real service of staple foods for our customers who are rightly experiencing anxiety right now.”
“What I’d like to say is, don’t panic. I’ve talked to a lot of our farm contacts – the farms still have food, they need the customer support as much as you need their food.
“It’s times like this that really highlight how important farmers’ markets are to support locals getting their food from local farms as close to their homes as possible.”
The spokesperson for the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association, Jane Adams, said she was aware of just one market, in Launceston, Tasmania, that wouldn’t go ahead this weekend.
“Farmers’ markets are obviously vitally important as a link in Australia’s food chain and more so now than ever before, considering the shortages at supermarkets,” Ms Adams said.
“Shoppers can buy fresh food in the fresh air and I can’t think of a better way to try and shop than like that at the moment.
“Especially in regional communities [where] they add considerably to that local economy.”
The association has published a free online fact sheet on the homepage of its website with recommendations for minimising risk at markets.
“More than ever at the moment, I think it’s vitally important that farmers’ markets trade within the guidelines that are being prescribed to maintain our public health system,” Ms Adams said.
She operators of markets with indoor areas should “think about moving [them] outside or spacing stalls out further”.
“From a shopper’s perspective, it’s a matter of going to the market, being efficient about your shop not actually expecting to sit down for leisurely coffee,” she said.
“Bring your own trolley and if you are experiencing any symptoms of illness, stay away in consideration for others.”
She stressed the importance of social distancing.
“If you have to stand in a queue at the farmers’ market, maintain that 1.5 metres distance while waiting to be served and then move along.”
Ms Adams said market managers would review crowd management next week.
Ideas being considered for larger farmers’ markets include clicker-counting customers on and off the market grounds and differently coloured wrist bands for hour-long shopping periods.