COVID-19 and the changing future of farmers markets, regional agriculture

Timothy Bougton’s Amber Oaks Berry Farms has been a mainstay at the region’s farmers markets for more than a decade, a perennial favorite at the Saturday Shirley’s Farmers’ Market in the Village Shopping Center on California Avenue near Reno High School. Shirley’s is still planning to open on June 9, but Bougton brings seasonally fresh produce to the shopping center parking lot in Reno and other markets year-round, through the thick of winter, or as now, before market season begins.

I met Tim years ago as an eager home-gardener interested in the story of my food: how it was raised, how it got to me. Just over the hill in Auburn, California, Amber Oaks Berry Farm produces over 120 crops on 40 acres. I got to tag along with one of the last harvest-season school groups to tour Amber Oaks last year.

The stand in Reno is a reflection of the farm: plump berries, kiwi fruit, blood oranges, white grapefruit, rhubarb, fresh basil and a changing variety of seasonal vegetables. Tim is generous with samples and descriptions of the farm and its practices. Even though he wore a mask last Saturday, he was as talkative and friendly as ever.

Timothy Bougton owns and operates Amber Oaks Berry Farms near Auburn, California. He sells his produce at several regional markets, to include Reno in The Village Shopping Center on California Avenue – photo: Anthony Postman/The Ally

I was curious to hear how the pandemic has affected his operations as a grower, producer, and farm-stand operator. A safely-spaced line formed at the stand last Saturday.

“We have everything behind the rope,” Tim said. “No one’s touching the food, but the people who are picking and packing it. We’re wearing masks and gloves when we’re packaging things. We have people that are calling in who are high-risk, making their orders ahead of time. We’re boxing up everything. Nobody’s touching their produce with their hands or breathing on it. So they’re able to know that they can use the food safely. They call us when they get here, and we put it in their car. Some of them pass through the window with a credit card so they don’t even have to open the door. Some people have taped the money in the back of their truck bed.”

Tim reports a doubling of sales volume since the closure of non-essential businesses in mid-March.

“What’s happening is, a lot of people are finding out about us, and they love the idea that nobody’s touching their food and breathing on their food,” Tim said. “I think that’s really made a lot of new interest in what they’re getting. They don’t want to go to the store to be around a lot of people. They can come here. They can walk along the front of the table, separated from the other people. We are boxing everything; they pay for it; and then they can put it in their own box or bag (or use ours) and take it home.”

Bougton says the pandemic presents an opportunity for his business and regional agriculture to expand.

“We’re planning more. We’re trying to figure that out because we don’t know if it’s gonna last. We don’t know if it’s gonna be a short-term thing or a long-term thing. And so that’s the gamble right now. We’re planting now thinking it’s gonna be a long-term thing.

“I think that the people that find the product that I have are gonna love it because we have a really good fresh product. I don’t think you can find the quality of what we have in most stores. You might find one or two things that are similar, but overall, you’re not going to find what we bring because we’re getting it fresh from the field, putting it in the cooler, and we’re bringing it here. So, I think that a lot of the people that are finding us are gonna continue to come here, even if everything changes back to somewhat normal.”

The novel coronavirus pandemic comes with many potential lessons for society, and one could be the importance of growing diverse foods closer than 150 miles from the consumer. Large-scale, mono-crop operations have watched harvests go to waste recently due to gaps in packaging and distribution. Small farms need to grow a diversity of crops to be environmentally and economically sustainable.

“I have found that it’s better to have a lot of diversity and have smaller amounts, than to have one gigantic crop of one thing. I lost 15 acres of raspberries in one year and almost bankrupt us, so, I don’t do that anymore. That’s why I have the volume and variety that I do,” Tim said. 

Amber Oaks Berry Farm stand in the Village Shopping Center on California Avenue on May 2, 2020 – photo: Anthony Postman/The Ally

The western slope of the Sierra is rich, diverse farmland. Many small farms dot the region around Citrus Heights, Penryn, Auburn, Grass Valley and Nevada City. Tim says the pandemic has inspired a transition toward locally grown products.

“My friend, around the corner from me – their business is going crazy. They’ve been selling Wednesday and Saturday in their yard. Their business has more than doubled since this started. And they’re planting all kinds of new veggies … he had lost his job and his wife had lost her job, and they’re trying to make the farm work for them. She started baking. She did the cottage-law thing and started doing a lot of baked goods, but they’re also growing stuff, and they’re crazy busy. People are lined up outside the gate when they open.

“So it’s huge for small farms and small businesses right now that are growing stuff at home. I think it’ll have a big effect for a long time. Like I said: when they find you–and they know what you have–they’re not going to quit coming, just because COVID ends.”

When Anthony Postman is not working on music, or conceptualizing conversations for The Ally, he is pondering vegetable procurement and food sovereignty. 

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