Guest Essay: Where is GTF?

This essay by Patrick Merscher, Assistant Manager at the Hillsdale Farmers'‚Äč Market in Portland, was published in the market's newsletter when Gathering Together Farm was not able to attend the market due to flooding from a January storm. The farm, located on the banks of the Marys River in Philomath, and its neighbors are still feeling the effects of that storm, and April’s heavy dose of rain, hail and snow hasn’t helped. Merscher's essay explains what such heavy flooding means for farmers and crops.

Around the New Year, you may remember the Pacific Northwest receiving a heavy amount of precipitation in a relatively short amount of time, which is not unusual for the area, although these events are increasing in frequency and intensity. You may also recall the news stories about flooding all around the region, especially in low-lying areas like the Willamette Valley, and about the effects it had on the many farmers that call these places home.

One of the market’s largest vendors, Gathering Together Farm (GTF), was heavily impacted by the floods, and they spent months away from the market. Every week shoppers would ask, “Where is Gathering Together? The flood was weeks ago—why aren’t they back?” These are brilliant questions, and one of our roles at the market is to act as a conduit between our local community and local farmers. So, here are some insights on what happens when a farm floods, and why it takes so long for them to return— and no, it’s not just because absence makes the heart grow fonder, although we certainly missed them.

Slow Winter Growth: The fresh winter vegetables you find at market (think radicchio, cauliflower, leeks, etc.) are actually started in late summer and early fall. Before winter starts, plants need to be about three-quarters mature in order to survive the cold temperatures. Growth during the wintertime is exceptionally slow here in the Northwest because of cold weather, short days and low-intensity sunlight. Plants are more holding in the field than they are growing. When a flood damages these winter crops, they actually have a lot of growth to catch up on and less-than-ideal conditions to do it in.

Oxygen Depletion: Plants respire just like humans. Standing water smothers the plant’s breathing pores (called stomates) essentially suffocating the plant. The extent of damage done by oxygen depletion is made worse by warmer waters (a symptom of climate change), stagnant water, younger plants, and the amount of time plants stay submerged.

Nitrogen Loss: Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for healthy plant growth and the health of the plant’s immune system. Forms of nitrogen that can be taken up by plants are also very water soluble, so much of the nitrogen can run off the field as flood waters recede. Anaerobic conditions (i.e. a lack of oxygen) also promote certain microbes that consume the nitrogen for their growth. Lack of nitrogen further slows plant recovery, reduces yields, and increases plant disease. Nitrogen can be replaced, but options are limited on certified organic farms like GTF. Often these organic sources of nitrogen require a mineralization process done in the soil to become available for plants, so it’s not a quick fix. Winter conditions also slow the mineralization process. The farm is also concerned about costs of production like fertilizer and labor, both on the farm and to work the market.

Erosion: Flooding not only removes soil nutrients, but it can physically remove organic matter or even the soil itself. The organic matter is responsible for holding onto nutrients and serving as a substrate that plants can root into. Sand, gravel and rocks can also be moved during flooding, physically damaging the plants. Healthy soil is the foundation of organic farms and farmers spend years developing it. This cannot be easily replaced.

Weed and Disease Growth: Floodwaters bring in weed seeds and plant pathogens. Since crops are damaged, weeds have an easier time growing and competing for sunlight and soil nutrients. Damaged crop plants are virtually sitting ducks for plant pathogens like fungi that love damp, cool conditions and can outgrow the plants easily. Of course, manual or mechanical weed control is the first line of defense on organic farms like GTF, but digging, tilling or otherwise working waterlogged soil, even just walking on it, destroys the structure of the soil and can cause compaction. This will have longterm effects that could be seen for years to come because, again, soil health is something farmers spend years building, but nature can take it away in an instant.

While none of this is pleasant to talk or think about, hopefully you have a better understanding of the plight our local farmers are facing. When one of them experiences a catastrophe like this, please be patient as the farm and the workers recover. They may not be able to come to the market for a few weeks, but your patience is one way you can support them and the market.

Read a profile of founder John Eveland of Gathering Together Farm. Top photo of January's flooding at GTF from their Instagram account.

Farmers' Markets Adapting to New Normal: Mask-Wearing, Social Distancing

"We are lucky to live in a state with relatively low numbers of
COVID-19 cases, however, the recent increase in cases has shown us how easily
that could change if we do not remain vigilant." Ginger Rapport

Oregon's farmers' markets are open and, as always at this time of year, over-flowing with strawberries, blueberries, cherries, summer squash, beans and all the incredible produce typical of early summer in the Pacific Northwest. What's not typical are the behind-the-scenes gymnastics that have been required to keep the markets open as Oregon officials and farmers' market representatives wrestled with establishing guidelines to keep both vendors and shoppers safe.

Farms have innovated to provide services the public wants.

Local farms and ranches were hit hard by the closure of restaurants that bought in large volume and prominently featured locally produced meats, seasonal produce and grains on their menus. Many quickly pivoted to offering CSA subscriptions, online sales and home delivery to make up for some of the lost revenue. But the closure of the state's more than 120 farmers' markets would have been the death knell for many farms and ranches, not to mention a potentially crippling loss of revenue for communities, since farmers' markets return more than three times as much of their revenue to the local economy than do chain (grocery) competitors.

State guidelines for farmers' markets require vendors and staff to wear masks and practice safe distancing, as well as limiting the number of customers onsite and designating "social distancing officers" to enforce social distancing policies. The guidelines also require making aisles wider and spacing market booths six to 10 feet apart.

Vendor booths are spaced apart per state regulations.

Hillsdale Farmers Market manager Eamon Molloy said that vendor placement has been his biggest challenge.

"I need to place vendors, particularly large farms, in a spot where I can give them enough space for a line that is safely spaced for customers," Molloy said, adding that, for the most part, vendors have been helpful and cooperative.

"Social distancing remains our biggest challenge," said Ginger Rapport, market master of the Beaverton Farmers Market. "Managing the lines that form with customers standing six feet apart, and managing the flow of traffic is something that requires our constant attention."

Signage helps remind customers about mask-wearing, distancing.

The need to maintain distance between booths and allow customers room to social distance while shopping has decreased the number of spaces available at markets, most of which operate within a limited footprint. This means that many markets have seen a decrease in stall fees—being forced to pare down to "essential" vendors, or having some at-risk vendors choosing to skip this season—which has created challenges for markets in terms of generating income for paying staff and overhead, according to the Oregon Farmers Market Association's Melissa Matthewson.

As one of the largest markets in the metro area, Rapport said that her market has had to reduce the number of usable spaces for vendors by about a third, a significant number in a market of that size.

"This means a loss in income to the market which, as a 501(c)(4) [nonprofit that promotes social welfare], doesn't operate on large margins," Rappot explained. "It's a balancing act to reduce expenses while trying to be understanding of vendors needs at such a difficult time."

Masks and social distancing don't have to be unpleasant.

"The market is one of the few outlets for income for many of our small businesses and farms whose wholesale outlets (i.e. restaurants) have dried up, or whose fairs and festivals have been cancelled," she said. "For many we are the only game in town. There's a lot of pressure to keep the market functioning while trying not to completely drain our reserves."

In the pandemic's early days back in March, it wasn't at all certain that markets would be allowed to stay open at all. Strong advocacy on the part of the OFMA and the state's farmers, along with a willingness to collaborate with state regulators and remain flexible as policies shifted, turned the tide in favor of keeping markets open.

As for the rest of this season, Hillsdale's Molloy is cautiously optimistic.

"We are playing it week to week. We know how to run a pre-order market and are ready to turn it on if we have to do that," he said. "As long as customers comply with our mask rule and we work at keeping safe physical distancing, we will be running the way we are now."

The OFMA's Matthewson said the public will play a big part in helping markets survive. "The best way that customers can support these markets is to continue to shop there if they are able, and also to consider donating to the market as an investment in their long term viability," she said.

Oregon Farmers' Markets are Open and Adapting as Pandemic Progresses

"Milwaukie had its second market of the season on Sunday," wrote Milwaukie Farmers' Market market manager Brendan Eiswerth about the normally packed Mother's Day market. "I was having nightmares about there being too many customers, the opposite of the nightmares I had for the past 21 years about no one showing up."

That was the signal worry on most farmers' market managers' minds in this era of COVID-19: how to keep shoppers and vendors safe while supporting small family farmers and producers.

Markets have made changes to keep shoppers and vendors safe.

Most markets in Oregon have made adaptations to follow statewide guidelines from Governor Kate Brown's Executive Order that designated farmers' markets as essential services. The Oregon Farmers' Market Association developed its own resource list to guide farmers' markets in adjusting their operations to minimize risk to the public of transmission of COVID-19.

A previous post outlined how local markets were innovating to provide food and support local farms during the pandemic, including experimenting with setting up systems for pre-ordering from vendors online and then picking up on market day. Others tried switching to a drive-through model where shoppers could pull up to a vendor's stall, choose items and then have the vendor place them in the shopper's car.

Some markets tried a drive-through model early in the pandemic.

Ginger Rapport, manager of the Beaverton Farmers Market, said that the drive-through model, implemented during the smaller winter market, got them through the early months of the pandemic, though she knew it wasn't sustainable in the busier spring and summer months.

"At the beginning of the pandemic when people were not sure how to deal with the whole situation, the drive thru provided some customers a measure of comfort that allowed them to continue shopping with us," she said.

Markets were also observing distancing requirements, placing booths from six to 10 feet apart, with one person at each stall assigned to reinforce social distancing. Other measures included encouraging shoppers to come alone, if possible, and to make a shopping list in advance of their trip in order to limit the time spent at the market. Most had already canceled classes, activities and music performances, and were asking people to refrain from extended interactions with other shoppers to shorten the time spent at the market.

Hillsdale's proposed plan for returning to a pedestrian market.

Hillsdale Farmers' Market initially piloted online pre-ordering with drive-through pick-up where shoppers simply had to pull up to the vendor's booth and their purchases could be loaded into the car. Initially there was some resistance. "I definitely received complaints from vendors and customers," said manager Eamon Molloy. "But it worked pretty well. We had well over 300 households move through the market between 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on May 3rd."

But by mid-May a construction project next to the market site and the increasing number of shoppers necessitated pivoting to another model. Molloy tried curbside pick-up, but site constraints made it too hard to implement. "It is unfortunate, too, because we still had over 150 households who wanted to just pick up and keep safe distance by being in their cars," he said.

Molloy is now sketching out plans for a restricted-access pedestrian market (above left), only allowing 65 shoppers at a time into the market site with a suggested time limit per trip of 20 minutes. For the safety of shoppers and vendors, masks will be required for everyone onsite, with handwashing at designated stations strongly suggested before entering and after leaving the market.

Many vendors have hand sanitizer available for shoppers to use.

The Hollywood Farmers Market, a neighborhood institution since 1997, operates year-round and has had an open, accessible site with six main points of entry, an unmanageable situation when it comes to limiting access.

"Our market-day crowds had generally been well below capacity," wrote market coordinator Ari Rosner. "But we knew that the nice weather, strawberry availability and the Mother's Day holiday would mean bigger crowds."

Liberal use of caution tape stretched around the perimeter reduced those six entrances to just two, which were staffed with volunteers tasked with monitoring the number of shoppers in the market at any one time and keeping those waiting properly distanced. "At the peak of the market, we had probably 60 shoppers waiting in line between the two entrances," said Rosner. "But talking to shoppers at the front of the line, it seemed like no one had to wait more than about 10 minutes to get into the market."

Safety is the priority at farmers' markets during the pandemic.

Asked how the pandemic has affected her market, which was established in 1988 as a gathering place for the community, Rapport said that COVID-19 has upended the way that she runs the market. "I have managed this market for 25 years and in each and every year before this, my focus was on maximizing the real estate available to me," she said. "Social distancing has redefined how we operate. It [has been] stressful to reinvent the wheel every week but, like everyone else, we are in survival mode.

Having to give up the social component of the market experience breaks her heart, Rapport said, but providing vendors and customers with a safe shopping experience while keeping the market going for its small businesses and farms has to be the priority now.

Like most of the market managers I spoke with, Rapport said she tries to keep her eyes on the prize as she navigates the obstacles presented by the pandemic. In her words: "To give our customers the opportunity to shop for farm fresh products and artisan foods with the promise that we will be here for them when they are once again able to join their family and friends for a long, leisurely day enjoying the market and one another’s company."

The Beaverton Farmers Market is a sponsor of Good Stuff NW.

Farmers' Markets Innovate to Provide Food, Support Local Farms

"The unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves
has changed how we define normal. And that new normal may be the status quo
for weeks or even months ahead."

In announcing that the Beaverton Farmers Market was planning to offer a drive-through option for shoppers, manager Ginger Rapport put it bluntly, writing, "To say that these are difficult times is an understatement. The unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves has changed how we define normal. And that new normal may be the status quo for weeks or even months ahead."

Farmers' markets are a vital link in a vibrant local food system.

On Tuesday, March 16, Oregon Governor Kate Brown released an executive order addressing the health threat from coronavirus (COVID-19), stating that all food establishments that offer food or drink are prohibited from offering or allowing on-premises consumption of food or drink. The order also prohibited public gatherings of 25 people or more.

In seeking clarification on the order, the Oregon Farmers Market Association (OFMA) presented the case to the governor's office that farmers' markets should not be classified as gatherings or events but are, rather, open-air grocery stores and a vital lifeline for local farmers and producers. Closing them would be tantamount to cutting off a critical food source for the community, and could force many family farms out of business. In addition, the case was made that the food in farmers' markets is subject to much less handling, since it does not go through warehouses, distributors, or store staff.

Farmers' markets are already implementing safer practices.

So it was with great relief that, in a bulletin on Thursday, March 18, updating the Governor's statement, the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) clarified that the prohibition "does not apply to essential businesses and services, including workspaces, grocery stores, retail stores, convenience stores, farmer's markets, banks, gas stations, hotels or motels, health care facilities, pharmacies, childcare facilities, state or local government or schools."

In fact, Oregon farmers' markets had already begun implementing practices to protect shoppers and vendors from transmission of the virus and, out of an abundance of caution, were already discussing various ideas for getting products to their communities.

North Carolina shoppers demonstrate social distancing.

In advance of the ODA bulletin, two markets, Beaverton Farmers Market (top photo) and Hillsdale Farmers Market, decided to pivot to new models including a drive-through option at the Beaverton market where market shoppers can shop from the safe distance of their vehicle. Hillsdale canceled its regular market stall set-up and is offering online pre-ordering direct through farmer vendors, with pick-up at its regular location on market day. Both markets have mobilized to help vendors set up online ordering systems.

"COVID-19 has disrupted our routines," wrote Hillsdale market manager Eamon Molloy in the market's newsletter. "In order to keep people healthy and maintain the recommended safe social distances, we will not conduct a regular market. Farmers and food vendors are setting up pre-order portals and taking orders by email."

In a notice on the OFMA listserv, Kelly Crane, the organization's Executive Director, said that she would begin discussions on purchase of a group license for an online ordering system for interested member markets.

Pritha Golden, Market Director at the Hollywood and Lloyd farmers' markets, outlined the reasons that her markets would remain open as usual and described practices that have been instituted to keep shoppers and vendors safe. "Farmers' markets are essential," she stated. "Despite the current health crisis, food remains a basic human need, and we provide access to nutrient-dense food. With our ability to space out our vendors, provide an open-air market, and relieve stresses on grocery stores, we aim to support the safest food shopping options."

Go to online ordering and information about the drive-through option at the Beaverton Farmers Market.

Go to online ordering information at the Hillsdale Farmers Market.

Go to OSU Small Farms Team: FAQ for Small Farms and COVID-19.


Previous: Farmers' Markets Taking Precautions Over Coronavirus Concerns

Photo of social distancing in North Carolina by Debbie Roos.

Magic Mushrooms: Wild Mushroom Duxelles

I love my little upright freezer. It allows me to buy berries with impunity, pulling them out on cold, rainy days when I desperately need a reminder that summer will, indeed, come again. And because I usually had my nose in a book when my mother was hauling out her big speckled enamel canner, all I have to do now is dump the roasted tomatoes from the grill into freezer bags and pull them out when pizza or pasta requires saucing.

On those nights when it's time for dinner (again???) and ideas are in short supply, I can open the door, survey the stocks, meats and sauces and come away with armloads of inspiration.

So when a couple of pounds of Springwater Farms'  gorgeous fresh mushrooms followed me home from the Hillsdale Farmers' Market, I tore them up, sautéed them with some shallots and white wine and spooned them into a couple of freezer bags. It's pretty much guaranteed that soon I'll open that door again and hear a whisper about ragu or risotto or chowder. 

Wild Mushroom Duxelles

2 lbs. wild mushrooms
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 shallots, minced
1/4 c. dry white wine or dry vermouth

Tear or slice mushrooms into bite-sized pieces. Heat oil in a skillet, add minced shallots and sauté briefly to warm them. Quickly add mushroom pieces and sauté until they release their juices and pans looks dry. Add wine and sauté till most of the moisture is evaporated. Allow to cool. Can be used immediately or put in freezer bags and frozen for later use.