How to Help Keep Texas Farmers at the Market
Deputy director Nora Chovanec on why they need your support to stay open
By Selome Hailu,
3:54PM, Wed. Jul. 1, 2020
For years, Texas Farmers’ Market has hosted market days every weekend and boasted a can-do, rain or shine attitude. Thankfully, the pandemic hasn’t managed to change that. But for the first time in a decade, the nonprofit organization is turning to the community and asking for donations to help them stay open.
“The city really recognizes farmers markets as a critical food access point for Austin residents, so we were never shut down,” said Nora Chovanec, deputy director of TFM. They host Saturday markets at Lakeline Mall and Sunday markets at the Browning Hangar in Mueller, and Austinites have continued to attend for their essential shopping since the start of the pandemic.
But unlike grocery stores and other businesses, sales alone won’t keep TFM afloat. Farmers pay a flat fee to participate as official vendors each week, so the money from each purchase goes directly to them, not to the market. And as individual vendors weather the financial impacts of the pandemic, fewer are able to pay their fees, which is TFM’s main source of income.
“During the peak of when everything shut down and our entire local community and economy was in a freeze fall, we went from about 100 vendors a week to 40 vendors a week,” Chovanec said. This represented a 60% loss to their operating budget, while they’ve also had to increase their own labor. TFM only has four full-time employees, so they’ve had to bring on additional part-time help to devise and maintain a system that keeps shoppers, vendors, and staffers safe.
With costs going up and vendor numbers going down, they realized in May that waiting for things to “go back to normal” wasn’t going to work. So to mitigate the months of lost income, TFM set up a virtual Lemonade Jug to take online donations with a goal of raising $30,000 by July 31.
In the meantime, Chovanec is focusing on making it so that more vendors and shoppers can return soon. “All of our team is coming up with different procedures and running new things on the ground. There’s increased staff to help run the market because we’re doing things like mask checks, sanitizing hands, and roping off the market,” she said. They’re also encouraging vendors to set up pre-order systems to minimize contact with shoppers, and requiring that any free samples be pre-packaged. Shoppers must exit the market if they wish to take off their masks to eat anything.
Masks and money troubles haven’t kept the TFM team from doing their best to bring joy to the community. “We have allowed dogs to come back to the market. It’s really increased morale for everybody,” Chovanec laughed. And to provide a window into the human lives behind all the fruits and vegetables, they launched a series of Instagram livestreams where TFM vendors give tours of their farms.
“Our farmers’ markets have always been a space for community and gathering and knowledge sharing, and now it really is a space where we’re trying to move people through the market as much as possible,” Chovanec said. Their aim is to use online methods of outreach to replicate at least some of the community TFM has built around sustainable sources of food.
As of press time, TFM has raised almost $20,000 of their $30,000 goal. But Chovanec notes that “giving fatigue” has set in after months of the pandemic, and the donations have begun to slow down. She hopes that the coming month will allow their fundraiser to reach audiences who aren’t yet familiar with their work and show them why the market is a valuable resource that deserves their support.
“If you’ve never been to a farmers’ market before, now is a great time to come. I truly believe that shopping outdoors in a socially distanced way with a face mask on is one of the safest ways you can get food for your family,” she said. “Even though the farmers’ market looks a bit different these days, it’s still a welcoming place.”
For more information, please visit their website. To donate to the virtual Lemonade Jug, visit www.texasfarmersmarket.org/help-the-farmers-market-tfm-vendors