Island farmers’ markets remain in COVID-19 induced limbo

MANITOULIN – The world around us changes by the moment since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, or at least so it seems, but for an economy reeling from the impact of travel restrictions and retail business closures, the prevailing prognosis is not one of confidence when it comes to the Island’s farmers’ markets.

Although farmers’ markets have been deemed an essential service by the province, that designation comes with strict caveat—only the food portions of the markets are allowed. Since many of the markets depend on the membership and/or participation of a wide range of artisans and crafters in order to make them economically viable (especially earlier in the growing season), some remain uncertain as to whether the markets will be able to function this year.

“I can only speak for the markets in Gore Bay and Providence Bay,” said Ted Smith of Evansville, who organizes the two farmers’ markets. “At this point in time we are not going to open.”

Mr. Smith cited the restrictions on the arts and crafts segments of the markets as a key factor. “Another factor is that most of the vendors don’t have an Interact option and then there is the physical distancing challenges,” he said. “We might be able work something out with e-commerce where people pay in advance and then come to pick something up.” But from a practical and economically viable point of view, those options are very limited.

“So many of my volunteers are seniors and we depend on the café in Gore Bay,” he said.

A number of the vendors at those two markets have been offering farmgate sales instead and that has seen a fairly positive uptake amongst those customers who regularly frequent the markets.

“It is difficult to imagine physical distancing methods you could use at a farmers’ market,” agreed Assiginack CAO Alton Hobbs. Assiginack holds a Heritage Market which also depends a great deal on artists and artisans as part of the mix. “The Heritage Market is held on the museum grounds,” noted Mr. Hobbs, “and the province has not opened up museums yet.”

“It doesn’t look good,” said Jan McQuay, the organizer of the M’Chigeeng market. “I intend to speak with (M’Chigeeng Ogimaa) Linda Debassige about it. I did speak with Jeff Bebonang, the arena manager, he didn’t think we could. I myself am not comfortable with going ahead because of COVID-19.” Still, like many of the Island market organizers, Ms. McQuay said that she was not entirely shutting the door on the season just yet.

“Some of the people in the garden area are talking about setting something up online,” said Ms. McQuay, “but I don’t know if that is getting started.”

The Tehkummah Seniors Club has been holding a farmers’ market at the Triangle Club Hall, but things are up in the air there as well.

“Well we are not too sure what is going to happen this year,” said spokesperson Andy Bowerman. “We are not making any plans until we know what is going to happen. We don’t know, we might not even be able to open the hall. We don’t want to open up and not be clear (of the pandemic).”

Mr. Bowerman noted that the Tehkummah Seniors’ Club consists of older members and generally more vulnerable people. “We went in and cleaned the hall about three weeks ago,” he said. “But we decided that we weren’t going to make any plans until we see where things are going.”

Long-time Little Current market organizer Ken Ferguson said that they were concerned about whether they would be able to open this year, citing the decisions of the Northeast Town and the Bank of Montreal (on whose property the market takes place) as paramount.

“I hope it will open up so that those selling things other than food can participate,” said Mr. Ferguson.

He pointed out that the market needs to have insurance in place in order to open and a major portion of the annual membership fees of $30 goes towards paying insurance. “If we don’t have people signing up for memberships because they can’t participate in selling at the market, I don’t know how we will be able to go forward with it.” Mr. Ferguson noted that market gardener Ray Bernstein is currently polling the community online to determine what the response would be from consumers.

Another factor is the availability of water and the public washrooms located across from the market. “It’s a long time to wait for the vendors from when we open until we go home, if you get my meaning,” he said.

The Kagawong market’s season is also very much up in the air, especially as it is not officially a ‘farmers’ market’ per se. “Right now a lot of it is in the hands of the province,” said Billing’s clerk Kathy MacDonald. The town is not officially calling the season closed, however. “We will play it by ear,” she said. “I don’t think it would take all that much to get it organized if we are able and decide to open the market up. It really would be just calling the vendors to let them know.”