Editor’s note: This story has been updated to add in comments received after publication from Forest Hill Neighborhood Association President Whit Clements.
A long-running Southside farmers market is moving across the river to a new location.
South of the James Market will set up in Bryan Park beginning this Saturday, leaving behind its former spot at Forest Hill Park – at least for the time being.
The move comes in response to concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and amid “tremendous pressure” put on the city government by Whit Clements, president of the Forest Hill Neighborhood Association, and Fourth District Councilwoman Kristen Larson.
That’s according to a message sent by GrowRVA, the market’s organizer, to vendors on Monday and provided to Richmond BizSense.
The message to vendors noted Clements and Larson suggested use of a high school parking lot but that was determined to be infeasible, and Bryan Park was hit on as an alternative. It’s unclear whether Bryan Park will be the new permanent location for the market, which has been in operation since 2007.
Karen Grisevich, founder and owner of GrowRVA, referred largely to the message sent to vendors when reached for comment, other than to say in an email to BizSense, “We are a small business that has been affected financially also.
“I do not know what the future holds,” she said. “Our goal is to provide safe, healthy food access to the people of Richmond. We feel very responsible to our farmers and their families.”
Clements, in an email to BizSense Thursday morning, said the decision to move the market was made by the City of Richmond and suggested that the move would likely be temporary while the pandemic plays out.
“Covid-19 has been a disruptive factor for the lives of all and for the market, the FHNA looks forward to getting back to normal and hopes for the quick return of the South of the James Farmers Market back to operating in Forest Hill Park as soon as possible,” Clements said. “We urge South of the James patrons to go out Saturday to support the vendors at their temporary location in Bryan Park.
A message left with Larson’s office liaison wasn’t returned.
The market already had to rethink its operations during the pandemic, kicking off a drive-thru service in March. Last Saturday, the market had 815 cars participate in the drive-thru portion of the market, according to the GrowRVA message to vendors. There also were about 300 walk-up customers, with the market requiring social distancing measures. The drive-thru service requires customers to preorder their goods. Currently that’s handled between vendors and customers, though the market is working on an online system it hopes to have running later this month.
Coronavirus and ensuing government restrictions have stung businesses that rely on farmers markets to make money, said Martin Smith, owner of Dockery Branch Farm. The South Hill-based farm produces and sells sausages.
For Smith, about 40 percent of his sales at South of the James markets come through new customers who happen to stumble across his stall. That kind of customer is rarer these days, and business has been mostly with existing customers.
Smith, who plans to be at South of the James’ first market at Bryan Park this week, was last a vendor at the market in mid-April. He said he felt like the number of vendors was down compared to pre-pandemic markets, but was impressed with the number of cars that showed up for the drive-thru service. He found customers tended to buy in bulk.
That’s some consolation given the recent disruptions to business. Smith voiced frustration that farmers markets seemed to get the worst of government orders compared to grocery stores.
Smith has been participating in South of the James for about nine years, and has been selling at farmers markets for 11 years. There’s been a trend by markets away from walkup sales to online preorders due to the virus. With preorders, vendors can find themselves spending a big chunk of the workday just making sure orders are fulfilled ahead of time. Nevertheless, Smith predicted preordering would stick around at farmers markets after the pandemic.
“It’s been different than anything I’ve experienced,” Smith said. “This is a huge transition and it digs into production time.”