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On path to normalcy

Attendance picks up at farmers market but still missing vendors

Ryan Beylikjian, left, a student in Sustainable Living at Maharishi International University, sells a bunch of carrots from the university’s organic garden to Fairfield resident Christi Stone Saturday at the Fairfield Farmers Market. (Andy Hallman/The Union)
Ryan Beylikjian, left, a student in Sustainable Living at Maharishi International University, sells a bunch of carrots from the university’s organic garden to Fairfield resident Christi Stone Saturday at the Fairfield Farmers Market. (Andy Hallman/The Union)
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FAIRFIELD – The Fairfield Farmers Market is in full swing, with good crowds every week and many vendors selling out their produce.

It’s quite a turnaround from where the market was in March when it had to shut down with the arrival of the coronavirus. The market, which was then indoors at the Fairfield Community Center, did not meet for six weeks until the first week in May when Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds gave the green light for farmers markets to reopen.

The market operated with a number of restrictions during May and the first few weeks in June, during which time live entertainment was banned and the market was limited to produce and homemade foodstuffs, meaning crafters were left out.

Since mid-June, those restrictions have been lifted, and a few crafters have returned to the market, but not many, according to Reeta Murphy, president of the market’s board of directors. That said, Murphy is pleased Fairfield has a market when so many towns have shut theirs down.

“We were one of the few markets in Iowa that opened when we were allowed,” Murphy said. “And we’re one of the few that are totally open.”

Dennis and Rita Eastman set up their craft booth at Saturday’s market in Howard Park. The Eastmans sell homemade kitchenware made from wood such as serving spoons, rolling pins and cutting boards. They normally take their wares to the biggest markets in the state – Des Moines, Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. But they can’t do that this year because those markets are closed.

The Eastmans are from Packwood and began selling at the Fairfield Farmers Market 12 years ago. They slowly worked their way into the bigger markets. Since those markets aren’t available, they decided to set up a booth a little closer to home.

“It’s better than sitting at home doing nothing,” Rita said.

The Eastmans said the pandemic has really hurt their business because it has canceled so many craft shows where they would otherwise make their sales.

“We’ve sold some on Facebook but not much,” Dennis said. “We go where we can. This Fairfield market is a good market.”

Mark Sedlacek runs Bobcat Valley Produce in Keosauqua and is a regular vendor at the market both Wednesdays and Saturdays. He said he “can’t complain” about the sales this year, which have been pretty good. He said there’s often a line at his booth by 8:30 a.m. on Saturdays, proof there are plenty of people willing to venture out for homegrown fruits and vegetables.

“The pandemic hasn’t hurt us too much,” he said.

Sedlacek said he worries more about what the market will do at the end of October when it normally moves indoors to the Fairfield Community Center. He said he’s not sure if the pandemic will be under control enough to allow indoor markets by then.

Sedlacek said okra has been one of his biggest sellers this year.

“People fight for it,” he said.

He said his potatoes and greens like chard and kale have been selling well, too.

“The people who come to the Fairfield Farmers Market are very health conscious, and they buy a lot of vegetables,” he said.

Steve McLaskey, a professor at Maharishi International University who leads the Regenerative Organic Agriculture Program, set up a food booth Saturday where he and a couple of students from the university’s Sustainable Living Department sold produce from the university’s greenhouse and gardens.

McLaskey said he feels there is even more demand than normal for locally grown food because of the pandemic. He said the growing season has been good for produce, and that’s allowed the MIU organic farms to sell lots of tomatoes, cucumbers, bitter melons, okra, chard and carrots.

“I’d say the attendance is about normal now,” McLaskey said. “It started out slow at the first few outdoor markets, but it’s picked up.”

Ryan Beylikjian and Daniel Sterk are both Sustainable Living students in the Regenerative Organic Agriculture Program. Their studies have not been interrupted by the pandemic, since so much of their work is done outside in the gardens.

“We’ve learned a lot about the gardens, and the classes are a good mix of hands-on education and the marketing aspect,” Sterk said.