VIRGINIA BEACH — Local produce farmers can provide their goods directly to consumers amid the new coronavirus public health emergency, though they must take precautions to protect workers and customers, according to guidance from state agriculture officials clarifying aspects of the executive order issued by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday, March 23.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services issued guidelines for individual farm stands and pick-your-own operations about temporary restrictions during the ongoing emergency.
Such operations are not specified in the order as farmers markets are, but guidance says stands and pick-your-own locations should limit patrons to 10 at a time at establishments, in fields or “outdoor sectioned off areas” while enhancing sanitization practices. Other steps include providing single-use buckets or bags for people picking their own produce and engaging in social distancing, meaning keeping people six feet apart.
Virginia Agriculture & Forestry Secretary Bettina Ring said the government is working to ensure public safety and implement the standards of Northam’s executive order while keeping agricultural businesses going and the supply of healthy food available to Virginians.
“We want to make sure they still have access to that food, but we just have to do things differently,” Ring said during a telephone interview on Thursday, March 26.
“They can continue to do pick-your-own,” she added, “they just have to be careful how they do that.”
Agriculture is the leading industry in the commonwealth and the third largest in Virginia Beach. Last year, fruits and vegetables grown in Virginia Beach had an estimated value of $4.4 million, up from about $4.2 million the previous year, according to numbers compiled by the Virginia Beach extension office in coordination with the city agriculture department.
Much of that locally grown produce is sold directly to consumers through family-operated farm stands and pick-your-own operations, especially in southern Virginia Beach, which is entering strawberry season.
“We expect farm stands to be open, and we’re going to get the word out on strawberries,” Virginia Beach Agriculture Director David Trimmer said.
Virginia Beach City Councilmember Barbara Henley, a farmer who represents the Princess Anne District, said the governor has said food production is critical and farmers have a clear role to play.
“We’ve got a lot of food we’re going to be producing,” she said, noting that farm stands can take precautions to keep workers and the public safe.
“We’re talking about acres outside, not a confined space inside,” Henley said. “With care, we should be able to keep everybody safe.”
There has been some discussion locally about how farmers markets are classified and the constraints the executive order has placed upon them. Farmers markets bring a number of vendors to a central location, and these are specified in the order. They are different than individual stands or pick-your-own operations.
Trimmer said the city-managed Virginia Beach Farmers Market continues to operate, though the executive order has had an impact. Northam’s order includes a prohibition that went into effect at midnight, Tuesday, March 24, against operating dining areas at venues such as restaurants and farmers markets, though they can still offer delivery and takeout. This piece of the order is set to expire on Thursday, April 23.
Special events scheduled for April at the Virginia Beach Farmers Market are canceled due to the public health concerns about the new coronavirus, Trimmer said. The events include an annual celebration of the market’s birthday and the Friday night hoedowns, a popular free concert series that runs from spring through October.
“Some of the businesses are closed, but they are private businesses that are individual shops,” Trimmer said. “There are just going to be day to day shoppers.”
Trimmer said the office market is open and staffed. The public is welcome to call the office at (757) 385-4388 or communicate directly with individual businesses at the market.
Scot Wilson of the Princess Anne County Grill, a restaurant located at the market, said he had to make the difficult decision to shut down temporarily due to restrictions and a lack of traffic.
“We weren’t doing enough business to do curbside and to-go, but we’ll give it another shot in 30 days, if we can,” Wilson said. “Supporting us when we reopen would be the best thing – and support the other people who are still there.”
Ring said the state has had discussions about constraints with farmers market operators. Safety concerns about their operations include how farmers markets lead people to congregate. The limitation of 10 people at a site means different things depending upon how the market is arranged and operates.
“We’re not closing farmers markets,” Ring said. “They just have to do business differently.”
At the Virginia Beach Oceanfront, the Old Beach Farmers’ Market has used Saturday “drive thru” markets from 9 a.m. to noon to help support its vendors.
Consumers can preorder from several vendors and pick up goods at the market’s location in the Croc’s parking lot at 19th Street and Cypress Avenue within the ViBe Creative District.
“You don’t get out of your car,” said Laura Habr, co-founder of the market and owner of Croc’s. “We hand it to you. We have volunteers to help with traffic flow. You have to preorder.”
Preordering is best, and customers are asked to pay by credit card. The market is posting events for the drive-through markets at its Facebook and Instagram pages via @oldbeachfarmersmarket.
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