Even though most city dwellers don’t think about farms as a major feature of the Washington metro area, there are hundreds of farmers growing food in our region.
My parents, Tony and Hiu Newcomb, started farming on Springhill Road in McLean nearly 60 years ago — before organic vegetables were defined as such — and we have been selling tomatoes and beans and leafy greens since. There are four generations of Newcombs on the farm, planting and weeding and selling. The region has grown up around us, too: It went from being primarily agricultural to overwhelmingly suburban.
But some things haven’t changed. Since the opening of the Arlington Farmers Market in 1980, we have sold about half of our crops at area farmers markets.
We were there when sellers were bringing their bread and sweet corn in their cars, opening their trunks and setting up with card tables.
The rest we sell at our roadside stand on the farm and through our Community Supported Agriculture program. We sell all of our vegetables directly to the folks who eat them.
The coronavirus has hit all of us hard, and like everyone else, farmers are struggling to keep up with the newest developments. Our work is essential, and we are committed to growing good, healthy, local food while navigating the challenges of keeping customers and employees safe.
Like everyone else, we are juggling the challenges of caring for our children, keeping our parents safe, and caring for ourselves as we continue on with planting and harvesting food.
That’s why Gov. Ralph Northam’s recent decision to designate farmers markets like restaurants, and not grocery stores, is so frustrating to me and to other Virginia farmers who recently sent a letter asking him to reconsider. Maryland and D.C. have seen it differently, and those markets are working to create protocols for safely selling food — outside in the open air, with lots of social distancing. In Virginia, the vendors are encouraged to take orders ahead of time and have packages ready for pickup — like takeout from a restaurant.
This adaptation is not only extremely cumbersome for the farmer. It unnecessarily limits our customers’ access to our food — fresh produce that many are struggling to find at the grocery store. It is far more effective to create market layouts that can accommodate our collective need for safety than it is to ask farms to become online stores.
As extremely small businesses, we have neither the technology, nor the infrastructure nor the staff to operate as a restaurant packing up orders for pickup.
Farmers are taking the lead in figuring out how to make their markets safe places to shop. We want to be partners in health, nutrition and safety, but are hampered by the lack of nuance that comes with these new directives.
We want to do the right thing just like everyone else and farmers markets can be the safest way to get local products.
Some might think a small, family-owned farm in Fairfax County is a fish out of water, but we persist. We persist because it is important to demonstrate that food can be grown in suburban and urban areas, and farmers can make a living doing it.
We persist because we believe that fresh, local produce is good for our bodies and good for our customers. But it will be hard to keep this up if the markets are limited to 10 patrons at a time and if pre-sales are a requirement. Losing the income we make at farmers markets could be devastating to our bottom line.
We’ve been in Virginia for more than 60 years and this well-intentioned but misguided regulation could make it impossible to make a living growing vegetables. It’s already pretty hard.