Disappointment on council call on markets

COVID-19 no reason to shut down farmers' markets: VFMA

UPDATED
Coronavirus
MARKET CLOSED: Ballarat Farmers' Market has been closed indefinitely, due to coronavirus.

MARKET CLOSED: Ballarat Farmers' Market has been closed indefinitely, due to coronavirus.

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New ways of connecting producers to consumers, as farmers' markets are shut.

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The Victorian Farmers' Markets Association has called out councils, which have revoked permits for its member markets.

The City of Greater Bendigo and Ballarat City Council are among local authorities, which have stopped regular farmers' markets from going ahead.

"With the advice from the federal and state governments in relation to limiting public gatherings to reduce the risk of infecting people with the COVID-19 virus, the City of Ballarat has taken the step of not permitting farmers' markets to be undertaken on council land at this point in time," Ballarat's Infrastructure and Environment director Terry Demeo said.

But VFMA executive officer Kate Archdeacon said it was disappointing councils had not spoken to her organisation or market managers.

"These are cleaner, more open spaces than food retailers would be," Ms Archdeacon said.

"These are places of abundant, fresh, healthy food.

"It's freshly harvested and locally grown; it's just such a missed opportunity when councils decide to shut down markets, rather than talking to us."

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Ms Archdeacon said there were 37 VFMA accredited markets in the state.

"All markets are okay and can go ahead, it's just that some landowners are making decisions that run counter to the advice from the state government."

Meanwhile, Strathbogie shire, which has three farmers' markets has adopted a middle ground.

Rather than revoking permits, mayor Councillor Amanda McLaren said council had held informal discussions about the shire's farmers' markets, this week.

"The current need to adhere to Government guidelines about social distancing and the number of people permitted at gatherings clearly means that farmers markets need to look differently at how they operate," Cr McLaren said.

"We acknowledge the VFMA has been working closely with the farmers markets across the state to implement measures to help farmers markets adhere to the government guidelines and support farmers getting their produce directly into the hands of the consumer.

"Where possible, we would encourage producers who were reliant on the farmers markets as a source of income to look at diversifying the way in which they are operating and perhaps changing their business model so they can continue to operate during these times of social distancing."

Cr McLaren said other businesses involved in the food supply industry had moved towards a 'click and collect' model, where people ordered their requirements online or phone.

The orders could then either be picked up or delivered, reducing the need for large numbers of people to congregate in the one area.

"We would encourage any producer to chat to our economic development team where we can provide advice about how they can look at different ways of delivering this vital service and also financial assistance available."

Government restrictions

Earlier this month, the government announced gatherings deemed essential, which may include food markets, could remain open.

Agriculture Minister Jaclyn Symes said she'd like to see farmers' markets safely continue.

"They are indeed able to to, the same as supermarkets, but I cannot direct that they go ahead," Ms Symes said

Many markets and producers were moving to online platforms and preorder pickups.

"I hope that goes well," she said.

Ms Archdeacon said three councils had taken the decision to revoked the ability of managers to run markets, while a fourth local authority had made restrictions so extreme it was not possible to go ahead.

"It's crucial councils be called to account for these decisions," she said.

'"They are really not being clear about why they are making these decisions, and they are certainly not negotiating, even with all the things we can offer."

Ms Archdeacon said the food sold at markets, would have been handled three times, at most.

Markets were also putting social distancing and hygiene measures in place, even to the extent of washing cash, to reduce the risk of coronavirus.

"Everything is being done to adhere to all of the health guidelines," she said.

"I do think councils need to be more accountable as to why they are making these decisions and should be obliged to be transparent about them.

"They should also be obliged to negotiate with the community, not make arbitrary decisions."

Innovative alternatives

Ms Archdeacon said VFMA was working with the Open Food Network, a digital platform linking producers and consumers, to set up "virtual markets."

Under the Open Food Network model, producers can create an online shop, collect payments, and sell through other shops on the platform.

Wholesalers can integrate with existing systems, manage buying groups and supply produce through national or regional networks of food hubs and shops.

Communities could also bring together producers in a particular area to create a virtual farmers' market, building a resilient local food economy.

Open Food Network director Jen Sheridan said the platform was established in 2012 to sell, and buy, food at a fair price.

"Its designed specifically to allow farmers to collaborate on sales and a market manager can have an online shop, for customers to visit," Ms Sheridan said.

"Each farm controls its own branding, their own pricing, and stocks their own shelves and it feeds into one shopfront."

She said the Open Food Network had signed up ten times as many shops as it would in a month, since the crisis.

"The last thing we need, after bushfires and drought, is for farms to miss out on sales," she said.

She said she believed farmers' markets would come back, once the crisis was over.

"There is an absolute joy in connecting with our community over food, talking to the local farmers," she said.

"I hope it makes some people consider making more pre-order sales and still showing up at farmers' markets.

"I live in Tallarook, and I can't imagine our town, without its fabulous farmers' market."

Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance president Tammi Jonas, of Jonai Farms, Eganstown, said she believed the direct sale model was the best for both farmers and consumers.

"Leaving farmers without a distribution channel, overnight, is terrible," Ms Jonas said.

It left many people vulnerable, particularly during the current coronavirus crisis.

But she said direct sales, and those through farmers' markets, needed to be less precarious.

"It's an interesting time; we see a huge shift in buying behaviour," she said.

"It's a different way of doing things - people are starting to figure out how to do it, and doing it.

"There is nothing like self-isolation to boost local food sales."

Council concerns

Ballarat mayor Councillor Ben Taylor said council was trying to lead by example, in relation to events.

Ballarat has revoked the permit for farmers's markets, in the city.

"The markets push the boundaries and council are in a really difficult position," Cr Taylor said.

"We are trying to lead by example, in everything we can, around social distancing and staying at home."

Bendigo mayor Margaret O'Rourke said the risk was too great, in that the council could not guarantee the safety of farmers or consumers.

"With the farmers' markets you can get 100-150 people in the length of Hargreaves Mall and we just felt it was putting everyone at risk," Cr O'Rourke said.

She said council was suggesting consumers contact producers directly.

"Many people have a relationship with producers now," she said.

In Redesdale, the community had set up an online hub, to link producers and consumers, with options for pick-up or delivery.

"People are being innovative about how they can get their fresh produce," she said.

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