Producers Tristia and John Lakey from Lakey Farm at a previous Lancefield and District Farmers Market.

By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

After fighting an uphill battle to keep farmers’ markets open during last year’s stage four lockdown, organisers across Victoria are rejoicing their essential status this time around.

Victorian Farmers’ Market Association accredited markets were business as usual last week – the most obvious difference being compulsory masks – including the Riddells Creek market operating in the height of the statewide circuit-breaker lockdown.

“Even with that latest announcement of the [extended Melbourne] lockdown we haven’t seen any concerned or negative reactions from any local councils or any other parts of government to suggest that market should be shut down,” association chair Chris Hain said.

Mr Hain said that part of the economy was considered essential to Victoria’s economic recovery this year.

“We did a lot of the heavy lifting during that last major lockdown last year,” he said.

“And the good news is at all levels of government there’s strong, consistent recognition that farmers’ markets are still essential retail services and they play a very important role in feeding communities, as well supporting the small-scale agriculture sector and artisan food and beverage makers across Victoria.”

The association includes 33 regular markets, with more than 600 members. Markets can range from 20 to more than 70 stallholders.

“For some it’s 100 per cent of the way they do business, for some it’s 80 or 30, but for all of them it’s a critical way for them to introduce new products to market and get instant feedback,” he said.

Last winter farmers’ markets were not permitted under Victoria’s stage four lockdown until mid-August, when vehement campaigning from associations, farmers and passionate customers won a change in restrictions.

Lancefield and District Farmers’ Market in particular faced challenges when, despite being allowed to operate, the Lancefield Park Committee withdrew permission for the event to go ahead at Lancefield Park over COVID-19 concerns.

At the time Lancefield market coordinator Meggs Hannes said the battle to keep all parties satisfied had left her and many volunteers ‘burnt out’, and the future of the market was uncertain.

The market was saved when it was given the option to temporarily relocate to Romsey, thanks to community advocacy from members of the Friends of Lancefield Farmers’ Market Facebook group.

Ralf Fink and Antony Culo of Oakwood Smallgoods in Castlemaine say markets are a major part of their business, as they attend a several around central Victoria.

This year, the Lancefield market has returned home to the central plantation on Lancefield’s High Street.

Besides masks, markets still all look mostly normal in regional Victoria.

“It’s a little bit of back to the future,” Mr Hain said.

“Our stakeholders and decision-makers have recognised that things like doing tastings is still important as long as the proper protocols and hygienic food handling and separation between handling of cash and handling of food are followed.

“That’s a critical part of the market experience for some of our stallholders.”

Mr Hain said the association had been ‘diligent and vigilant’ about staying in touch with the relevant government departments to ensure the gates stay open.

“Our farmers are still growing produce, they’re still picking and packing and preparing every week, and they need your support,” he said.

“None of them are buying holiday houses or luxury boats or Porsches, I can guarantee that.

“Your hard-earned dollars go straight into their pockets and that goes back to support their families and their farms and businesses and that’s the way we keep a strong, resilient food system going.”