Farmers market produce pixabay

Arlington leaders past and present on March 21 pummeled the Northam administration for abandoning farmers’ markets to an uncertain fate, saying the public and the producers must have access to them during the current health crisis.

But at the same time, the county government may not have helped matters with its own messaging on the subject.

At Saturday’s County Board meeting, former board member John Vihstadt rapped the state government for lumping in farmers’ markets – of which Arlington has nearly a dozen operating throughout the week – with restaurants (which for the most part are now closed to dine-in service and in many cases are shuttered completely) rather than treating them as supermarkets (which remain open and running at full strength).

The status of farmers’ markets in Arlington and statewide has been in limbo since Gov. Northam on March 17 issued an executive order restricting the number of patrons allowed in restaurants, fitness centers and theaters to 10 or fewer. The Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services then interpreted that ruling as including farmers’ markets.

“That’s wrong,” Vihstadt said. “Especially now, farmers’ markets serve as a helpful safety valve to relieve crowding and panic-purchasing at chain grocery stores.”

Vihstadt, who some years ago chaired the Arlington Urban Agriculture Task Force, said state officials seem not to grasp that farmers’ markets likely are no threat to public health.

“One can easily distance oneself at an open-air farmers’ market – less so in cramped grocery aisles or as one waits in long checkout queues,” he said. “We need grocery stores.  But a sustainable food system needs farmers’ markets, too.”

Vihstadt’s viewpoint carried the day:

• “I agree with absolutely everything you said,” board chairman Libby Garvey said.

• “I’m in complete agreement,” County Manager Mark Schwartz said.

Garvey’s colleague, Christian Dorsey, went further, complaining that the governor “has used blunt instruments rather than surgical instruments” in addressing the evolving health crisis. (Gov. Northam is a surgeon by profession.)

But the Arlington government may have muddied the waters on its own, sending out a March 20 press release asking those farmers’ markets that operate on weekend days to close March 21-22 until the situation could be sorted out.

The same press release acknowledged that the county government did not have the legal authority to close farmers’ markets, and intimated that state government’s pronouncements were open to interpretation, but said it would be “responsible action” if those who operate the markets voluntarily curtailed operations.

Vihstadt, speaking after the March 21 board meeting, said he hoped the governor’s staff was paying attention to the complaints of Arlington leaders.

“These markets must be deemed ‘essential services,’” he told the Sun Gazette, otherwise it would be their death knell – and maybe also that of those who supply food to them and the businesses nearby that benefit from spillover traffic.

At the moment, “small businesses are gasping for air,” he said.

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