Confusion over farmers' markets

Clarity call as Ballarat's farmers' markets are suspended indefinitely

UPDATED
Coronavirus
CALL FOR CERTAINTY: AFSA president Tammi Jonas, who runs a farm at Eganstown, has called for certainty on the status of farmers' markets.

CALL FOR CERTAINTY: AFSA president Tammi Jonas, who runs a farm at Eganstown, has called for certainty on the status of farmers' markets.

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There's confusion over the future of farmers' markets, due to COVID-19

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The president of the Victorian Farmers' Markets Association says operators will need to become more nimble and agile, as movement restrictions - due to coronavirus - are tightened.

Several councils, including Ballarat and Bendigo, have revoked permits for farmers' markets, as they are being held on municipal land.

VFMA president Chris Hain, who manages the Bendigo and Castlemaine markets, said he understood the need for the closures.

"I have had a couple of conversations with the Bendigo mayor, Councillor Margaret O'Rourke, and she was personally very upset about having to make that decision," Mr Hain said.

"She is certainly a big supporter of the local food market."

He said the council was working closely with Bendigo Health to manage risk, around the community.

He said VFMA was disappointed by the closures, but it had to get on with the job.

"We will adapt and get creative, innovate and find a way to do that," Mr Hain said.

"We know individual councils are making these same sort of risk assessments and their own decisions.

'There is the possibility of tighter regulations - so we are all going to have to get quite nimble, flexible and agile."

It was likely the Bendigo market would shift to private land.

The latest market was held at The Good Loaf Sourdough Bakery & Cafe.

"Everybody behaved very sensibly and complied with the instructions and controls, we outlined.

"That's going to be our model, pop-up, pre-order mini-markets, to support as many stallholders as we can."

Mr Hain said following tightened protocols on weddings and funerals, the council felt the risk of spreading coronavirus at a farmers' market was too high.

"I want to be clear I'm not critical of the mayor, councillors, or Bendigo Health," Mr Hain said.

"I understand the imperative that's right in front of them."

Online market

One regional farmers' market has moved to head off a potential shutdown by going online.

Wangaratta Farmers' Market has teamed up with the Open Food Network, after hearing sales in other parts of the state had been forced to cancel.

"We are not using the word cancelled, we are going online," market organiser Mary Daly said.

"We are putting our market online, all the farmers that want to be a part of it will have individual shops."

Open Food Network has an open soure platform, which allows producers to sell on line, wholesalers to manage buying groups, and supply through networks of food hubs and shops.

"Communities can bring together producers to create a virtual farmers' market, building a resilient local food economy," the Open Food Network website says.

Ms Daly said pick up arrangements, and a limited delivery service within Wangaratta, were being organised.

The move follows the cancellation of markets at Ballarat, Bendigo, Rutherglen and in several Melbourne suburbs.

The Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance has called for certainty over farmers markets, after they were suspended indefinitely in Ballarat, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The main market has operated on the shores of Lake Wendouree for more than a decade, with 40-50 stalls offering fresh produce and processed goods.

Read more: Bendigo Community Farmers' Market cancelled over COVID-19 concerns

AFSA president Tammi Jonas, who runs a farm at Eganstown, said farmers' markets were an excellent source of food, grown by Australia's small scale producers.

She said it appeared the markets were shut down, because the Ballarat City Council suspended all gatherings on municipal properties.

The Ballarat markets are held on council property.

Ms Jonas said she'd written to state and federal politicians, asking for their support in keeping farmers' markets open.

"We've requested all levels of government, but especially the state government, urgently make a clear and strong statement on its intention to maintain critical food supply chains at all levels and scales to ensure food security for all Victorians," Ms Jonas said.

"AFSA has learned, from farmers and eaters around the country, of the threat of closures of their local markets during the COVID-19 pandemic, while supermarkets, butcher shops, and bakers have permission to trade with safety protocols in place - as they should.

"We assert that all farmers' markets must be allowed to remain open as an essential service, just as other venues that sell food for household consumption, with all precautions taken for community safety."

She said she understood the Ballarat council had prohibited all gatherings on municipal land.

"The markets have been caught up in that decision, perhaps unintentionally, in which case it seems to be an easy fix," Ms Jonas said.

"We are asking governments to exempt farmers' markets, as they are an essential service."

"That will make a clear statement about assurances of food supply."

Read more: 'Essential gatherings': Accredited farmers markets to remain open

Ms Jonas said the closure was particulalry egregious as most supermarkets didn't have hand sanitiser available or were not enforcing social distancing.

"Farmers markets are taking it extremely seriously," she said.

Customers were safer at farmers markets, as they were practicing social distancing, only one person was allowed to buy from the stall at a time, and they were not allowed to handle the produce.

She said she couldn't understand why the state government would not declare farmers' markets and food supplies as an essential service.

"If we don't protect farmers markets, small scale farmers could just disappear," she said.

"It's so weird.

"Why is the government being so cagey about food being an essential service, especially when they have been pretty good about small producers."

Markets essential

Ms Daly said there had been no pressure from the Rural City of Wangaratta, which was one of the market's biggest supporters.

But she said the decision was taken to discourage social gatherings and protect farmers and the community.

"It puts too many people at risk," Ms Daly said.

The Wangaratta market is registered with the Victorian Farmers Markets Association.

"It's really important to support our farmers, at this time, coming off the back of the bushfires, where they were severely affected," Ms Daly said.

Ballarat farmers market operator Steven Burns said he was suprised at the suspension.

Premier Daniel Andrews and Prime Minister Scott Morrison had already said farmers markets were essential and should continue.

"The venues for both markets are City of Ballarat properties, and the city has suspended all activities on all its properties," Mr Burns said.

"It's not a case- by-case decision, it's a blanket decision."

He said he understood why the council had erred on the side of caution.

"The rules are changing daily, so it's very difficult to keep up with the requirements," he said.

"I believe it's possible to run an open air farmers market that is certainly as safe as going to the supermarket."

He said stalls would be spaced out, they would be cash free, customers would not be allowed to handle produce, and strict social distancing would be practiced.

"I am hopeful the blanket ban will be reconsidered, and it's also possible there may be some clearer direction from the state government."

Mr Burns said he had proposed using school ovals, with strict distances between stalls.

"Maybe all it takes is the Premier to talk to the Education Minister, and make a policy that school ovals will be available," he said.

"That would suddenly give every town a venue, not just for the existing farmers markets, but also other farmers who might need to get their produce out there.

"At the moment, despite the clear messages from both the Premier and Prime Minister, we are just caught in an unfortunate situation, where our venues are not available to us."

A spokesman for the Victorian govenrment said the operation of the Ballarat Farmers Market was a matter for the land manager and the operator.

"Farmers markets are currently able to operate, as long as they follow all required social distancing and public hygiene requirements." the spokesman said.

The Ballarat City Council has been contacted for comment.

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