SALT LAKE CITY — After the COVID-19 pandemic quieted the vibrant Downtown Salt Lake City Farmers Market last year, Salt Lake City leaders and market planners expect this year's market to be closer to "normal" than the 2020 season.
Saturday will mark the beginning of the 30th season of the market, which will feature more than 180 vendors providing access to produce straight from farmers, prepared food, and even arts and crafts every week through mid-October.
While it was in question early in the pandemic, COVID-19 didn't stop the farmers market last year. Many changes were enacted to keep it going. Vendors and customers were required to wear masks and booths were spaced out. It also became an essential grocery service at the height of the pandemic.
There were also far fewer booths in 2020 and the market just wasn't the same as in years past. One of the reasons for that was arts and crafts vendors and buskers were moved out of Pioneer Park altogether, making for a much smaller and quieter market than before. Most of the vendors that moved out of the park ended up at another market-like gathering at The Gateway a few blocks away.
The arts and crafts vendors will return to Pioneer Park this time around, with close to 60 arts and crafts vendors slated to have booths in 2021.
Alison Einerson, the executive director for the Urban Food Connections of Utah, said they are "thrilled" to have those vendors back.
"We survived last year. It was tough but we did it, so this year we're bringing back even more farmers, even more food producers and 60 vendors on the arts and crafts side," she said.
The market will also bring back prepared food vendors like food trucks. Einerson said that means people can also eat lunch at the park like "the normal ritual that we all used to."
"We're not quite back to full operations, but it's going to feel a lot more normal than it did last year," she added. "I think it'll feel a lot more fun — come and get that coffee, come and stroll around, come and shop the arts and crafts market. It's really a Saturday event where you can come and spend a couple of hours. ... We're really excited to bring that feeling back."
Farmers and producers are also eager for the expansion closer to 2019 numbers. Ryan Ingham, with Uintah-based Better Food Farm, said all the focus on health and safety protocols took some away from the traditionally lively market atmosphere. Sales also dropped because not everyone was ready to return to in-person activities.
He's hopeful that with vaccines available this time around, people will feel safe returning to the market and that vaccines will help boost business. That's at least what they've experienced at markets already opened in Ogden and Park City.
"I think it'll be a really big turnout," Ingham said. "I hope that people are happy to come out ... stay safe while still having fun."
Salt Lake Chamber and Downtown Alliance President and CEO Derek Miller added this year's market will still offer extra spacing and hand-washing and sanitizer stations. He said it is important that the farmers market return because of the long history they've played in North America, especially over the past 400 years.
"To me, the market is more than just a literal gathering place but a coming together that displays our belief in community," Miller said. "The pandemic showed us just how fragile that community can sometimes be. It also showed us how fragile important things like our food supply chains are. This fact alone would be reason enough to continue this wonderful tradition, but even more, it sustains local farmers' continual operations."
A renewed importance of the market
Kelly Pehrson, the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food's deputy commissioner, explained that both the farming community and consumers worked to help each other out last year. The department received calls from people wishing to support farmers during the pandemic, he said. At the same time, farmers called the department trying to find out people in need of food or other supplies.
"These are the people who rely on farmers markets just to keep in business," Pehrson said. "I appreciate the mayor and Salt Lake County to allow for farmers markets to continue because it is the lifeline of our producers."
Not only did the market help keep farmers afloat last year, it also supplied residents with groceries. That's why Pehrson echoed the importance of the Downtown Salt Lake City Farmers Market and the dozens of similar farmers markets it inspired across the state plays in Utah's food supply chain.
This year's market returns while some parts of the food industry still experience supply disruptions tied to COVID-19. There was also the JBS hack this week that showed the possible vulnerability of supply chains due to cyber hacks. That's something a farmers market can help with, especially as work is done to harvest and process food at a more local level.
"I think we're kind of seeing a turnaround where I think a lot of communities want to see local meat shops, local food hubs," Pehrson said. "I think it's kind of full circle where you used to go to more commercial (food suppliers), now it's coming back to more of a local niche (or) local market and we're excited about that."
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall added that the other important part is that money spent in the market stays in Utah's economy.
"The dollars you spend on our local market stay in our local economy — many times fold that which you would buy at a corporate retail store," she said. "What's more is that you're building community because you're meeting the people who have put their heart and soul into the products that they're selling to you, you're building a relationship with someone."
Will the drought impact the market this year?
This year especially figures to be rough for many Utah farmers completely away from cyberattacks and pandemics. Utah's ongoing drought has already posed some threats for farmers. Pehrson said many farmers and ranchers across the state are already running at 40% of normal operations, which could mean fewer yields for some crops.
Ingham said farmers such as himself are working on ways to conserve as much water as possible just because the irrigation water availability throughout the summer still isn't set in stone and depends heavily on the weather throughout the summer. He explained that produce like lettuce and spinach crops need regular misting, especially during hot and dry weather, which could result in a need to the water supply.
The market's final Saturday this year is near the end of October. That said, Pehrson said he doesn't expect the drought will force producers to close shop early this year. That still remains to be seen because experts haven't experienced a drought quite like this year's.
Regardless, the beginning of the market will allow all growers an opportunity to sell what they do have now, which is important.
"Farmers markets are a great place for them to sell their product now — fresh and healthy," Pehrson said. "We're excited (Salt Lake City) is moving forward this year."