Fort Wayne farmers market vendors are seeing high demand during COVID-19

As COVID-19 reveals the fragility of a national food system dependent on a handful of Big Ag growers and processors, Fort Wayne's local food movement appears to be getting stronger.

Just ask the leaders of two downtown farmers markets.

YLNI Farmers Market

In mid-May, the YLNI (Young Leaders of Northeast Indiana) Farmers Market on historic Barr Street opened for its 16th season, welcoming guests to what has become an annual fixture in Fort Wayne’s summer scene.

The massive outdoor market blocks off Berry and Barr Streets, drawing crowds averaging 8,000 every Saturday. This spring, the COVID-19 pandemic is putting a dent in those figures. Only 3,000 people came out for the market’s two-week delayed opening date on May 16, says Market Leader Ashley Wagner.

Even so, her team is glad to keep supporting local vendors by helping them get their products to market. As farmers across the country are dumping milk on fields and struggling to process their livestock, Wagner says her vendors have been concerned about not being able to get their own surplus of products to consumers, as well.

“If the shutdown were to continue, our vendors would have all this produce and not be able to do much with it,” she explains.

The YLNI Farmers Market opened two weeks later than usual this year during COVID-19.

Thankfully, while fewer market attendees are coming out during the pandemic, those who do are making more significant purchases. Wagner says many of her vendors sold out on the market's opening weekend.

The YLNI Market works with about 100 vendors total, and about 70, including food trucks, came out for the first weekend of sales. While many markets try to stick to a ratio of 80 percent meat and produce vendors and 20 percent arts and crafts, Wagner says that the YLNI market has always had a strong interest in supporting small businesses of all kinds, so its ratio varies from week to week.

While the market closed one weekend due to protests in downtown Fort Wayne, it's back open, and its numbers have been steadily increasing ever since. It's hosting more food trucks this year, too, up to eight per weekend from the average three to five.

Slowly, but surely, the market is settling into its new normal, encouraging people to hang out instead of just shop with a purpose, she says.

To keep shoppers safe, her team is direct traffic in one direction and spacing out vendor’s tents for social distancing.

“We’re just encouraging our patrons to be mindful of people around them and keep a respectful distance,” she says. “It can be risky anywhere you go.”

Farmers Market attendees are encouraged to wear masks and keep a safe social distance from guests and vendors.

To make the best of a bad situation, her team is also working on some creative collaborations this summer to support other festivals and events that have been canceled during the pandemic, too.

Wagner is optimistic that these collaborations will make the 2020 season a positive one, in some ways. Just take their collaboration with Waiter on the Way, as an example.

Building Fort Wayne’s Amazon

For those who don’t feel comfortable shopping in-person during the pandemic, YLNI is launching a few innovative partnerships to bring local products to people's doorsteps.

In May, they struck up deals with two local food delivery services: Market Wagon and Waiter on the Way, thanks to a grant they received from the Foellinger Foundation.

Market Wagon is an e-commerce site designed to help local farmers and artisans sell and deliver their products to consumers, so it was a natural fit for the YLNI Market, Wagner says.

“Quite a few of our vendors were already working with them,” she explains.

Market wagon is an online farmers market that delivers farmers' products to consumers.

On the other hand, Waiter on the Way, which typically delivers hot-and-ready meals from local restaurants, has adapted its model to deliver farmers market products from vendors of all kinds, too. And thanks to the Foellinger Foundation grant, they are able to make these deliveries for free.

Derek Berkes, Owner of Waiter on the Way, says the shift to selling farmers market products is the first step toward a larger, ongoing goal of his: Adding capabilities to his delivery service to create a hyper-local “Amazon of Fort Wayne” in partnership with the Downtown Improvement District.

So far, the Farmers Market section of Waiter on the Way’s website has two vendors. He’s hoping to keep expanding that list to include more retailers who want to get their products to residents and don’t have a reliable website or delivery service yet.

Berke’s plan is to stock nonperishable goods at Waiter on the Way’s office and distribute them from there. He sees Waiter on the Way as filling a critical gap to support up-and-coming small business owners in Fort Wayne so they can withstand the pandemic.

“It’s about supporting those passionate entrepreneurs and business owners who are just trying to get things moving,” he says. “Their passion is really what fuels the American dream and the local economy in a lot of ways.”

Derek Berkes owns Waiter on the Way in downtown Fort Wayne.

Since the pandemic started in mid-March, Waiter on the Way has done its part to give back to local businesses, too. Earlier this spring, the service partnered with the Downtown Improvement District to waive its delivery fees for downtown-area restaurants. When dine-in services shuttered, they helped many small restaurants transition to carry out for the first time. They even updated their website capabilities so customers can make direct donations to local restaurants’ service staff.

In the first 10 weeks of making this change, Berkes says Waiter on the Way has collected more than $80,000 in donations, and the giving is still going strong.

“We’re still collecting about $1,000 a day or more in donations, and it’s going directly to the people who work at local restaurants,” Berkes says. “The cool thing is, this money isn’t coming from one or two large donors either. It’s average people giving $5 here and $10 there. So it really shows you how much the local community can support itself.”

Berkes says he’s seen an uptick in the support for local businesses and local food in the last five years in Fort Wayne, but he’s noticed a huge influx in support during the last three months alone.

It’s a trajectory he hopes will continue as more residents realize the added value of buying local—and as more local treasures, like Bravas, announce plans to close, at least for the time being.

“It just goes to show that everyone needs to continue to spend as much as they can in the local community to keep local businesses going,” Berkes says.

Ft. Wayne’s Farmers Market

The YLNI Farmers Market isn’t the only downtown market making changes in 2020. Another change that attendees might notice this year—and likely going forward—is that Ft. Wayne’s Farmers Market, which usually sets up next to YLNI is remaining at its winter location at Parkview Field this summer.

“It’s an easier way to manage a crowd,” says Market Master Bridjet Musser.

Ft. Wayne's Farmers Market is staying at Parkview Field this summer, setting up on the baseball stadium concourse.

That said, the change in location is also prompting residents to realize that the two markets downtown operate independently.
In the future, YLNI is hoping to set up its own winter market somewhere downtown, Wagner says, despite one-time plans to move to the future Public Market at Electric Works. On the other hand, Ft. Wayne’s Farmers Market is highly considering a move to the Public Market when Electric Works opens, Musser says.

“Having a farmers market year-round in one location will be beneficial, so we don’t have to be switching back and forth on where we locate,” she explains.

As the daughter of the founder of Ft. Wayne’s Farmer’s Market, Musser says her vendors were extremely thankful that Gov. Eric Holcomb classified farmers markets as “essential” businesses this spring. After all, Ft. Wayne’s Farmers Market considers itself a very traditional market in the sense that it doesn’t have any entertainment on-site, and about 96 percent of its 60 bi-weekly vendors are food vendors—many of them farmers themselves.

As the national food supply chain becomes increasingly bottlenecked, local residents might need to rely more on their neighborhood farmers for supplies, Musser says.

“That is something we’ve had to talk to our farmers about,” she explains. “We’ve said: ‘Be prepared. You may be some of the last standing food sources for people in your community.’”

Many farmers have a surplus of products this spring due to COVID-19 limiting sales opportunities.

When the pandemic first hit in mid-March, this warning proved true. Many Fort Wayne residents started shopping local at the indoor farmers market, where they could find products in stock, like meat, that the big chain grocery stores didn’t have.

“Those first few weeks in March, some of our meat vendors had to have family members come out to restock their coolers halfway through the day because people were just buying them out,” Musser says. “The fear factor of COVID-19 ended up being really great for our market vendors.”

To encourage safe shopping in the colder months, the indoor market limited the number of people allowed inside at a time, asking shoppers to wait in line outside until it was their turn.

Many weeks, that line stretched around the building, Musser says. She believes it’s a testament to the growing tenacity behind Fort Wayne’s local food movement.

“With the record cold temperatures in March, we had people waiting 15 minutes in line to get in,” she says. “The first week we opened after COVID-19, we had almost 900 people show up at the farmers market that day, and I couldn’t say it enough. ‘Thank you so much for waiting. Our vendors greatly appreciate it.’”

Ft. Wayne's Farmers Market had just under 3,000 guests on its opening weekend in mid-May.

When the market opened at its summer location at Parkview Field’s outdoor concourse in mid-May, just under 3,000 customers showed up to shop, and many made significant purchases, Musser says.

“We were just blown away,” she says. “Fifteen vendors sold out completely, and many had record sales. It’s always amazing to hear from our vendors, ‘We’re walking out today with nothing, and that’s never happened before.’”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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