Artisan vendors protest ‘non-essential’ title

·5 min read

The Nicola Valley Farmers’ Market is making a plea that artisan vendors be permitted to set up alongside their food vendor counterparts once again as market season launches in a few months.

On Dec. 2, 2020, new restrictions from the Provincial Health Officer barred all vendors who didn’t sell food items, deeming them as “non-essential”.

Already hard hit by the pandemic, artisan vendors decried this order, which prevented them from making up some of the sales they had lost throughout the year by capitalizing on the crucial Christmas shopping season.

Vice President of the Nicola Valley Farmers’ Market, Lucas Handley, said that this order has also made smaller markets less enticing to the public as they typically have a very balanced mix of food and non-food vendors. The restrictions have resulted in a loss of around 50% of the Nicola Valley Farmers’ Market vendor base.

“It’s roughly 50/50,” said Handley.

“Spring is more heavily artisan and fall is a bit heavier for food, but it balances out to about 50/50.”

Maggie Anderson, owner of Serendipity Soaps and Sundries, has been a vendor at the market for nearly two decades. But as a non-food vendor she will not be permitted to sell her wares this year, unless the restrictions are changed.

“We’ve all heard to wash our hands as it is the best way to stay healthy during these days of COVID-19,” said Anderson.

“And yet, here I am, an artisan soap maker not able to sell my products at the market. I chose the Nicola Valley Farmers’ Market as my venue to sell and promote my handmade bath and body products to our local community. As a vendor, I was able to talk about my products to customers and answer questions on the spot. Personal connections were made, and many customers prefer locally made products.”

Anderson notes that artisan vendors like herself would have to follow the same rules as all other vendors and customers: wearing masks, maintaining social distance, frequent hand sanitizing, following a one-way flow and having products packaged and displayed in a sanitary way.

“I am a long-time vendor at our market, and I’ve worked hard to create Serendipity Soaps and Sundries,” said Anderson.

“Without the market as a venue and my customer base, my business will not survive.”

These sentiments were echoed in an open letter penned by Handley and distributed by the Nicola Valley Farmers’ Market.

“We are kindly requesting that the provincial health orders be amended immediately to allow artisans to attend our farmers markets as vendors,” reads the letter.

“Artisan Vendors are an integral part of farmers’ markets, and especially for small, rural markets, where artisans make up a large portion of the market. Without the whole ‘vendor family’ present, small markets run a real risk of folding. Markets are years of investments in time, education and promotion, and they simply will not just reappear after the pandemic, if they are lost to the pandemic.

“Our vendors provide a great service to our community. Everything sold at the market, was made, baked or grown in the community. This is the roots of neighbours helping neighbours, building community, and uplifting community members, especially in these unprecedented times.

“By limiting who can attend our market as vendors, customers find themselves little option when it comes to filling their non-food needs. People still need soap, they still need blankets and towels, they still need furniture. Even that piece of artwork might brighten the day of a person feeling the mental strain of the pandemic. To say that anything not food-related is not essential is not a fair thing to do. Essential means different things to different people,” the letter continues.

“And right now, Farmers’ Markets have proven to be a safe, low-risk atmosphere for people to get their goods. Most markets are outdoors, which allows ample space for social distancing, one-way flows, proper hygiene. The best part of a fully functioning farmers’ market is it keeps the dollars flowing, it keeps people employed, and it helps rebuild communities hit hard by the pandemic.”

Handley said the reasoning behind banning artisan vendors was never fully explained by the province, and notes that big box stores continue to function normally with no restrictions surrounding items that can or cannot be sold.

“Goods imported from other countries are being sold at big box stores, the same types of items that could be being produced locally and being sold by artisans at Farmers’ Markets,” Handley explained.

He also noted that throughout the summer of 2020, Farmers’ Markets proved to be low-risk, safe venues, even with all of the vendors in attendance and a higher number of customers. And, Handley alleges, it has never been more important to buy local. Many people became more invested in local goods after seeing the breakdown of supply chains amongst larger retailers at the beginning of the pandemic last year.

“We have an obligation to be there for them, to provide this service,” reads Handley’s letter.

“Please, consider the families who have been suffering from this pandemic already. The stress and uncertainty if they will be able to make a living this year, it’s very hard on people. Please do the right thing and allow them to know that they will be able to support themselves this summer, at Farmers’ Markets across British Columbia. Please reverse this decision to exclude artisans from farmers’ markets immediately.”

Morgan Hampton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Merritt Herald