How one conversation helped save area farmers markets this year

Rebecca Ryan, of Ryan’s Fruit Market, organizes some of her products before the start of the market. (File photo by Tristan Lorei)

By Katelyn Waltemyer, contributor

Back in the early days of COVID-19, neighbors Josie Showalter and Seán McCarthy were walking their dogs when the conversation shifted to the pandemic’s economic effects. 

Showalter, the manager of the Harrisonburg Farmers Market, told McCarthy, a JMU professor,  about how customers were staying home — and away from the farmers market. McCarthy also works with JMU X-Labs, which brings together faculty and students from different areas of study to creatively and innovatively solve problems. Showalter inadvertently presented a new challenge. And McCarthy was determined to help. 

Over the next two weeks after the fateful dog walking conversation in March, McCarthy’s students created the Harrisonburg Farmers Market’s online shopping platform. That project would expand into an effort to help three other farmers markets in the Valley. One even credited X-Labs for keeping its market alive during COVID-19. 

This quick turnaround halfway through the semester underscored X-Labs’ ability to adjust on the fly to let students solve real-world problems. So with the pandemic’s unpredictability, McCarthy said he hopes to see X-Labs continue to assist local businesses that have suffered. 

“We just got really creative very quickly, and trying to get the resources and the expertise of the X-Labs to work with the farmers market,” said McCarthy, who teaches in the Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication department.

The market still relies on the online ordering system for its Tuesday market but has resumed a walk-through on Saturdays — albeit with social distancing measures and masks. 

The start-ups

After JMU classes went online exclusively starting in March, McCarthy turned his last assignment in his WRTC graduate class into an X-Labs project to solve the farmers market’s dilemma.  

Three of McCarthy’s students worked with the farmers market’s eCommerce page through Food for All — a platform that aims to limit food waste. 

Lacie Knight, one of the graduate students who helped, said she learned how to post content on the website and worked with about five vendors. 

“It was definitely very fast in the beginning because we had to just get them running,” Knight said. “A lot of the farmers … were so used to going to the physical market so it wasn’t easy for the vendors.”

Aaron Kishbaugh, another X-Labs instructor, said there were several moving parts in getting the eCommerce site up, especially because of the pandemic. 

He said he spent much of his time initially making phone calls to local organizations and city officials to figure out if the Turner Pavilion, where the market is located, was still open and how the market could still safely use it for curbside pick-up. 

“Always having to have phone calls and video meetings and everything else, that was the big change,” Kishbaugh said. “I think it takes a lot longer to get anything done because … you can’t just walk into somebody’s office and say, ‘Okay, this is what I’m doing this is what I need. Can we just do this?’”

Helping beyond Harrisonburg

Since COVID-19 hit the area, McCarthy said X-Labs has helped a few other farmers markets, including Project GROWS — a nonprofit that focuses on food education, access and production — in Augusta County. 

Megan Marshall, Project GROWS’ director of food access said that without the help of X-Labs, there wouldn’t have been a farmers market this year. 

“Honestly, we couldn’t have done a total online market without the help of them,” Marshall said. “They’ve been with us really every step of the way this market season.”

Marshall said the JMU students would work with the farmers on a weekly basis to update their online inventory. 

Moving forward

Because the project was class-based, Knight — the JMU student — said the help from JMU’s end has phased out. However, she still “helps out here and there” and has encouraged all her vendors to reach out with any questions. 

“They didn’t expect us to do any work once our class had ended,” Knight said. “It’s hard to keep up with all of them with little funding.”

Once she formed relationships with the vendors, Knight also made logos and revamped social media accounts for them. 

For Showalter, she said it hasn’t gotten easier. She and the operations manager most oversee all aspects of the market, so handling the eCommerce on top of that is challenging, especially if the rules for businesses keep changing.   

While the students did an “excellent” job, she said she can’t expect them to be there permanently. 

“The market reality is there’s only two of us. Neither of us are full time and to get everything done that we have to do is a stretch,” Showalter said. “I just don’t know quite where that’s gonna go.”

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