The Corona Diaries: The Drive-Through Market
By Cathy Sloss Jones
As the COVID-19 pandemic exposes flaws and inequities in every corner of American society, so too is it forcing us to consider the future of an iconic American trade–that of small, family-owned, family-run farms.
Our nation’s farmers are no stranger to hard times. They have fed us through wars and economic crises, often at great sacrifice. But as the novel Coronavirus effectively halted food supply chains over the last two months, many farmers question whether their livelihood will outlast the disease, or vice versa. School and restaurant closings have dramatically decreased sales, commodity prices have dropped 20-30%, and a recent University of Missouri study estimated that net farm income could fall by $20 billion in 2020 alone.
In the midst of this grim reality, a model from Birmingham, Alabama is emerging as a new standard for local food ecosystems in our post-COVID world—one that not only helps farmers and restaurants survive, but thrive like never before.
Twenty years ago, I was alarmed by a different kind of threat in my native Alabama: small farms were disappearing due to competition from agribusiness and suburban development. New economics and changing demographics called for a strategy to connect the abundant supply of fresh, local produce in the state to the individuals and restaurants that wanted it.
So in the spring of 2000, we began setting up tents in an empty parking lot in Birmingham. We invited seven farmers and threw in live music and chef demo for inspiration. Within months, The Market at Pepper Place had a growing list of vendors and a loyal following of neighbors eager to fill their baskets. Fast forward two decades, and the Market had grown to 100 tents and 10,000 customers every Saturday morning, with an estimated economic annual impact of $20 million.
Then COVID arrived in Alabama. Our bustling market had become a vital source of revenue to farmers and a weekly pilgrimage for shoppers—but it was no longer safe. We began playing with the idea of the country’s first scalable, “contactless,” drive-thru farmers market. Customers would preorder/prepay for all items online in advance and then pick up from farmers at the Market location. After testing the idea with five farmers, we launched on, March 21 and 7 weeks later, the results are a beacon of light in an otherwise dark time.
At our drive-thru market, farmers are consistently selling out within days, sometimes hours. Many say they have sold much more product than they ever did at the regular market. Customers want more locally grown food, especially during the pandemic, and they are willing to spend more when shopping online. And we’ve included our chefs as well, highlighting special meals and dishes available for pickup.
In a recent survey by The Purdue University/CME Group Ag Economy Barometer, 42% of farmers said their utmost worry was how their farm would access markets during and after the pandemic. Another 37% of farmers cited financial concerns. The Market at Pepper Place is solving for both. With this model, participating farmers and vendors have not only made solid sales, but also identified new customers and a valuable new revenue stream that will help sustain them in the uncertain times to come.
We are still learning and adapting. When the Market drive-thru first launched, we saw 1200 cars and a two-hour wait. After adjusting the layout, streamlining traffic flow with added pickup lanes, and adding a new online shop, customers are now picking up their orders, without contact, in minutes. We’ve also prioritized the needs of Birmingham’s more vulnerable neighbors: we created a workaround to ensure citizens can use SNAP EBT in our online store, and we are also delivering food to Birmingham’s community food bank at the end of every market day.
In April, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a $19 billion assistance package, but small holder farmers are understandably skeptical that the support will reach them. As 60 Minutes reported earlier this month, a similar package passed in 2018 primarily benefited large farming operations—not to mention hundreds of recipients in big cities—rather than supporting small, family-run enterprises that are increasingly threatened by this crisis. One-third of that money will go to just 4% of the country’s farming operations, leaving the vast majority of smallholder farmers without the assistance they need.
The good news is that local farmers markets have the opportunity to step in where government assistance is falling short. By linking farmers directly to households, markets across the country are integrating the food supply chain, which ultimately improves access to healthy food and creates more equity for producers, distributors, and consumers.
The COVID-19 pandemic does not need to be the end of small farms in America. While local farmers markets may not resolve this crisis for every farming family, they do give us a blueprint for the future of local food systems in which prosperity is shared more equitably and sustainably.
Cathy Sloss Jones is the founder and Board Chair of The Market at Pepper Place in Birmingham, Alabama. She is an urban planner, community advocate, and former Loeb Fellow at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.