As the Vancouver Farmers Market gets ready to wrap up its regular season and heads into its Fall Farmers Market, things appear to be bouncing back from the pandemic’s blow to one of the city’s biggest attractions.
After its most popular year in 2019, when an estimated 420,000 people visited the market, the 2020 market experienced a major dropoff due to the pandemic and its restrictions. The market has had about 170,000 shoppers visit so far this year, and 195 small businesses have taken part.
“Compared to last year, our customer attendance was 85,000 at this point in the season, so roughly half,” Jordan Boldt, executive director of the Vancouver Farmers Market Association, wrote in an email to The Columbian. “There were at least two reasons for this. One, we weren’t able to open the market until May, 6 weeks later than usual, and Two, when we did open, we had capacity limitations which kept numbers down.”
Boldt said 1,030 children participated in the market’s Produce Pal’s program. WSU Extension nutritionists led market tours for 140 people in three languages.
The market also raised $241,593 in food access that has been distributed to 3,792 SNAP Shoppers, and 75 customers subscribed to the Market Box program, a weekly box of local produce that customers can get delivered to their car curbside every weekend.
“We had a really big year with programs to support education and food access,” Boldt said.
This year’s market also added new local food and farm businesses, including Misty Frog Acres, Last Farm on the Left, Finca Farm and Pantry, InClay Inc. Farm and Boisefort Valley Farm.
Two Native American-owned and -operated businesses also joined: Tutuilla True Fish and Native Candy.
“As for businesses in the market, we had 174 small businesses participate last year, though we also had capacity limitations for them as well, starting at 35 per day and ending around a max of 75,” Boldt wrote in the email. “So both of those figures kept the number of businesses at the market much lower than normal.”
Boldt, who’s been in his position since 2010, said the 2020 market’s revenue decreased 62 percent from 2019 due to the pandemic, for a loss of over $120,000 for the year. The market cushioned the blow with emergency savings, local grants and taking out a loan, he wrote.
Boldt said that this year, gross revenue has returned close to the 2019 level, but about 30 percent of that is from federal and state pandemic assistance grants.
“So the real question we’re asking ourselves is how 2022 will shape up, as presumably COVID relief funding will not continue, and our vendor attendance (where we earn a good deal of our revenue) may not be back to 2019 levels either through continued restrictions or the fact that we’ve been operating at a reduced capacity for two years and need to rebuild that core group of attendees.
“So, our answer to that is to continue operating as conservatively as possible and work to build our cash reserves in the event we need to endure a few years of lower revenues in the near future,” he wrote.
Boldt said the worst-case scenario for next year’s market, from a financial standpoint, is to continue operating with distanced booths and mask mandates.
“While the reduced capacity isn’t ideal from a business perspective, we’ve adapted to a point that we can sustain this level if needed and continue offering a good shopping experience and give local entrepreneurs an outlet for their businesses and access to customers,” he wrote in the email.
Other farmers markets in the Portland metro area are dealing with the same issues. Boldt said he’s heard that the vendors are doing well and customers are coming back to pre-pandemic levels.
“This is really a great example of the chance for the local community to show up and support local businesses and nonprofits and many from Southwest Washington have been doing so,” he wrote. “We’re very grateful for this.”