Farmers market popularity grows amid COVID era of supply chain issues

Sandy Torok, left, shops at Shirley’s Farmers’ Market in South Reno with her daughter, Molly, and granddaughter, Adalynn, on June 26, 2021. Torok is buying strawberries from Lisa Dermo, a seller for Rodriguez Farms, based in Watsonville, California.

Sandy Torok, left, shops at Shirley’s Farmers’ Market in South Reno with her daughter, Molly, and granddaughter, Adalynn, on June 26, 2021. Torok is buying strawberries from Lisa Dermo, a seller for Rodriguez Farms, based in Watsonville, California. Photo by Kaleb Roedel.

Lisa and Mike Dermo have sold 56 flats of strawberries. Over the next hour, they’ll sell half a dozen more, exhausting their supply for the day.

It’s nearly noon on a scorching Saturday in late June and the Dermos, vendors for Watson, California-based Rodriguez Farms, are capping another busy day selling the crimson berries at Shirley’s Farmers’ Market inside the parking lot of Tamarack Junction Casino in South Reno.

“These weren’t even picked 24 hours ago,” Mike Dermo says, pointing to a handful of 12-pint flats filled with hundreds of plump red strawberries. “They pick them in the afternoon and they go right on the van and right over the hill (the next morning). I tell everybody they’re still growing.”

The first two weeks of the season, the Dermos started each Saturday morning at Shirley’s with about 30 flats of strawberries. They were selling out within the first hour. Now, a month into the season, they’re bringing double the amount, and barely meeting the berry demand.

“People want the fresh stuff,” Lisa Dermo says. “Our stuff doesn’t have pesticides, it’s all-organic. Our strawberries are different than what you’re trying to get at the grocery store.”

Demand for fresh local food is one of the reasons farmers markets have grown in both popularity and size in recent years, said Shirley Sponsler, manager of Shirley’s markets.

Mike and Lisa Dermo, pictured here on June 26, 2021, have been selling Rodriguez Farms berries at Shirley’s Farmers’ Markets in Reno for 18 years. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW


“They were popular in the beginning because they were new,” said Sponsler, who’s been managing farmers markets in Reno for 29 years, including her flagship market at The Village Shops on California Avenue. “Now, I think they’re popular because people are more aware of their food. And they can talk to the farmers, too. They can go, ‘Where does this grow? What do you do to it?’”

One could argue that people’s heightened food awareness and desire for farm-to-table products has only grown during the coronavirus pandemic. Last summer and fall, many people were seeking a safer place to buy food than inside grocery stores, which were short on supplies due to panic buying.

Suddenly, farmers markets were not only drawing their usual customer base, but also a new crop of people looking for alternatives to crammed grocery stores in the COVID era.

“This was one of the only places people could go with their families and get outside,” said Sponsler, whose markets run Saturdays through Oct. 2, with each location showcasing a mix of up to 40 permanent and guest vendors selling fresh local produce, meats, cheeses, eggs, honey and more.


Last summer, though, was unlike any other for Shirley’s markets. Vendors had to get their temperature taken upon arrival. Masks were worn by sellers and shoppers alike.

Everyone stood 6 feet apart. Shoppers couldn’t handle or sample products before buying — a restriction Sponsler said was especially tough for farmers, who often rely on taste tests to make sales.

Shirley Sponsler, manager of Shirley’s Farmers’ Markets, stands with her granddaughter, Delaney, at her South Reno location on June 26, 2021. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW


Long acting as community gathering spaces filled with smiles and socializing, the motto at farmers markets last summer simply became, “buy … and bye,” Sponsler said with a laugh.

Yet, consumers showed up. And the vendors selling their products at the markets were grateful. After all, farmers markets emerged as a much-needed sales channel for farmers and food makers who lost business overnight as restaurants, schools and offices closed.

“It allowed some of the small businesses that would not have anywhere to go to be somewhere,” said Sponsler, who charges vendors $40-$55 per market, per week. “And then it also allowed the farmers to sell, and they would have been sitting on a lot of product. It was kind of like a lifeline to have this open last summer.”

Mike and Lisa Dermo, who said they sold out of strawberries every week of the market season in 2020, agree.

“It’s everything,” Lisa Dermo said of the importance of farmers markets. “That’s what keeps it going. That’s what keeps all of these farmers going — it’s the farmers markets.”


In fact, that’s the primary reason why farmer Cary Yamamoto decided to start one of his own last summer, opening Bonsai Blue Garden Market on Kietzke Lane in Reno.

Shirley’s Farmers’ Market in South Reno is located inside the parking lot of Tamarack Junction Casino on South Virginia Street. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW


“The pandemic was a real big part of what this was about,” said Yamamoto, whose longtime family farm that is focused on seasonal Asian produce is based in South Reno. “It was really trying to reach the community and really trying to connect the growers to the community. Some of these growers were establishing sales through restaurants, so when the restaurants closed, that really shut off a lot of their access to their marketplace.”

Bonsai Blue Garden Market pulled in about 20 vendors last summer, said Yamamoto, noting that it entered this summer with around 25.

The market, which runs from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. every Thursday through Oct. 28, is home to a variety of small businesses, including farmers and ranchers, hemp growers, bakeries, and a coffee roaster, among others.

“By and large, the vendors that we have been working with are really appreciative of having an outlet during that lockdown last year,” said Yamamoto, who charges $35 a week for a vendor spot. “I think because of that, it allowed them to have some sustainability to continue on this year.

Brian Nelson, left, and Bridget Nelson, co-owners of online dog food retailer Pet Wants, stand with their daughter, Alexis, in front of their stand at Shirley’s Farmers’ Market in South Reno. Photo: Kaleb M. Roedel / NNBW


“I believe that farmers markets are pretty paramount,” he continued. “They’re providing the means for a local grower and local artisan to be able to connect with the community better than anything else that they could really try to do.”


Back over at Shirley’s in South Reno, Brian and Bridget Nelson are one month into doing exactly that with their new Sparks-based internet business, Pet Wants, which offers home delivery of fresh, small-batch dog food.

Brian Nelson said they knew farmers markets would be key to growing and educating new customers. This, he said, is why they set up Pet Wants at three different markets in the area each week.

“It’s a great opportunity to get face-to-face with people and explain pet nutrition,” Nelson said. “In today’s society, where everything is leaning toward the internet and shopping online, it’s more challenging — especially if you don’t have a retail store — to get in front of people and talk and have interaction.

“That’s one of the beauties of the farmers market.”


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