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On the ground

Sigh of relief for French farmers as some street markets reopen

Clients wait for their pre-ordered food baskets in France southern smalltown Crest’s new Bio Drive.
Clients wait for their pre-ordered food baskets in France southern smalltown Crest’s new Bio Drive. © Shirli Sitbon - FMM

In France, authorities have partially lifted a ban on street markets if they abide by a series of strict social distancing rules. Being unable to sell their produce was a big challenge for farmers whose daily labour has already been adversely affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

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Crest is no Paris, New York or London but life in the small town located half way between Lyon and Marseille has also changed drastically since the coronavirus epidemic hit France. The town centre, usually packed with people on Saturdays, the weekly market day, is deserted.

Social distancing rules have emptied Crest’s bustling town center.
Social distancing rules have emptied Crest’s bustling town center. © Shirli Sitbon - FMM

The streets, dating back to medieval times, are too narrow to hold any kind of gathering during the epidemic. That’s why the market was moved to the largest square in town, allowing farmers and clients to keep their distances.

Crest’s street market has moved to the large Champ de Mars Square where social distancing rules can be applied.
Crest’s street market has moved to the large Champ de Mars Square where social distancing rules can be applied. © Shirli Sitbon - FMM

But the atmosphere on Saturday, April 4 was bleak. A few dozen clients stood in a long line separated by some two metres, many hiding their faces in their scarves, even though the weather was warm and sunny.

The French government ordered street markets to shut down on March 23 but days later farmers’ associations negotiated a reopening under a series of social distancing rules. Local police authorities authorised Crest’s city hall to organise its market on Saturday for the first time since the shut down.

The new rules say clients can only access markets one at a time. They need to clean their hands with hydro-alcoholic gel, and walk one way from the entrance to the exit without turning back. Market stalls were separated by 15 metres and about half of the usual merchants were banned from participating because of the lack of space.

Clients miss their old market’s atmosphere

“It is so depressing to wait for such a long time just to get into the market. It makes me think of the war, although I wasn’t born then. It makes me think of food shortages, of rationing,” says Laure, the mother of two teenagers. “I waited in line, walked through the market but I barely bought anything. I didn’t find what I was looking for. My baker wasn’t there. We fought for the market’s reopening but now I’m disappointed. There are too many people and almost nothing to buy.”

A young man walking towards the market site stopped short as he discovered the long queue at the entrance. “Can we even all make it into the market before it shuts down?” says Eric. The time was only 10am. In the queue, some five metres away from the entrance, a grandmother says she misses her family. “I miss my granddaughter. That’s the toughest thing about this crisis.”

Small farmers sell their produce in take away drive-throughs.

Farmers who have not been allowed to join the market that Saturday tried to find alternative ways to sell their produce. On market day some of them were working in the other side of town, distributing pre-ordered food baskets in a Bio Drive.

The platform took orders from Tuesday to Thursday. Farmers prepared the baskets on Friday.

A farmer fills a client’s bag in Crest’s new Bio Drive on April 4th 2020.
A farmer fills a client’s bag in Crest’s new Bio Drive on April 4th 2020. © Shirli Sitbon - FMM

Antoine Delaitre usually sells goat cheese at the market, which he hasn’t been able to do in the past two weeks. He joined the Bio Drive to limit his losses but was disappointed with the results.

“Our sales were about half of what we usually make on the market. If we sell our cheese both in the Drive and on the market, whenever we’re authorised to participate, then we’ll limit the blow.”

The farmer has also adapted his working process. “Instead of selling fresh goat cheese now I will let it mature for several months and sell it later. But I’ll still have to sell it sooner or later,” says Mr Delaitre, who now has to take his children, who have no school, to work with him.

French farmers have lost 200,000 seasonal workers 

Distribution is not the only problem Covid-19 has caused farmers. Many have lost their seasonal workers as well. French farmers rely on many workers from eastern Europe and north Africa and many haven’t come this year because of the outbreak.

“The usual seasonal workers, whether they come from abroad or live in France, are confined at home. Others can’t travel because of the crisis,” said Sebastien Windsor, the Head of France’s Agriculture Chambers. “Overall we needed to replace 200,000 seasonal workers because of the crisis.”

But that problem was partially solved after France’s agriculture minister called on all those who have lost their jobs due to the outbreak to go work in the fields.

“We have now reached a significant number of candidates, about 50,000 all across France. But we won’t be able to replace all of the seasonal workers. We’re trying to limit the damage,” says Mr Windsor.

Farmers got some good news from supermarkets. Several days into the crisis some chains decided to limit their imports of fruit and vegetables and sell, as a priority, French products.

“I think selling French products is the logical thing to do. I was disappointed to see supermarkets and greengrocers sell imported fruit and vegetable when the crisis started. I think it’s important to buy local and to support our regional farmers,” said Veronique, 68, who shopped at the street market and at the Bio Drive.

“I hope this crisis will change things, that after it’s over local farmers will get the support they need. We need to support them, and France’s industry particularly, in the current situation."

 

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