As customers anxiously await their favorite summer produce, local farmers like Julie Mallow, owner of The Vegetable Garden, have been preparing all year.
“I want people to understand that it takes a lot,” Mallow said. “There’s a lot that goes into what we do and how we grow things... to give them the best product available.”
Last April, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Morgantown Farmers Market closed indefinitely. By summer it had adopted a contactless drive-thru system where customers could order online in advance. This year, however, the market is set to return to full capacity at the Morgantown Market Place Pavilion, located at 400 Spruce St.
The market will take place every Saturday from 8:30 a.m. to noon starting on May 1 and lasting until mid-November. This Saturday marks the end of the winter season with the last market being held at 10 a.m. at 270 Mylan Park Lane.
“A lot of people nowadays really want to know where their food comes from, and they really do like the engagement you get with a farmer and that [agriculture] education you learn when you do come to farmers markets,” Market Manager Ayron Walker said.
Overall, Walker said the market saw a 15% to 20% decline in purchasing and attendance.
This may be a result of the market’s online system, according to Walker. She said some customers enjoy the experience of picking out their products in person rather than online.
“We were expecting a way larger dividend,” Walker said. “It was actually a really successful year given the pandemic and everything we’ve had to experience.”
Due to Gov. Jim Justice’s orders last month, the market is no longer required to enforce capacity limits, but social distancing and masks will still be enforced.
The summer traditionally brings high customer demand because farmers have more products to offer, but Walker anticipates this season will be particularly busy.
In preparation for summer, farmers plant and harvest months in advance. A seemingly casual trip for most customers means weeks of planning and work for farmers like Mallow.
“They see what we do; they see how hard we work to get products to them,” Mallow said. “You may pay a little bit more, but your product is going to be better because the people behind the scenes that’s their job; that’s their livelihood.”
Mallow spends the entire day before the market harvesting and packing her products. She said she’s constantly thinking ahead.
“There are nights where I can sit there and look at my ceiling for three or four hours at a time thinking about what we’re going to do for the next year and not just the next day.”
Mallow developed the Vegetable Garden in 2003 after her father’s farm, Davis Brothers Inc. located in Masontown, West Virginia, began to see a decline in production. Her business is known for offering bushel items, such as sweet corn, green beans and peppers.
“I’m hoping that we can leave a legacy for them [my kids] like my dad did for me. He’s one of the main reasons I even started in this in the first place.” Mallow said.
In the future, Mallow plans to install a commercial kitchen, which allows her and her family to produce “hazardous” food items like her husband’s hot sauce. The Food and Drug Administration defines “potentially hazardous foods” as foods that must be kept at specific temperatures to minimize the growth of harmful bacteria.
Mallow, among other vegetable farmers, saw an increase in sales during the pandemic, according to Walker.
“With our vegetables, the numbers were some of the highest we’ve seen, so that was really assuring to see that people were trying to shop locally because of the supply chain disruption,” Walker said.
She said the Morgantown Farmers Market’s winter season saw record sales, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In the winter, we’ve actually had a really great turnout,” Walker said. “We were not expecting as much engagement as we usually do. But it ended up being really successful.”
The summer market will feature a new vendor offering Kombucha, a fermented sweetened black or green tea, in addition to over 20 other vendors offering products, such as eggs, vegetables and pastries.
In collaboration with WVU Extension Service Small Farm Center, the market will continue to accept SNAP/EBT. Customers can swipe their benefit cards at the market manager’s table to get tokens to spend with food vendors.
“There’s a lot of pride in this business,” Mallow said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else at this point.”