Story by Marissa Price Photos by Trevor Rawson & Roger Gonzales

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the joys of strolling through the Visalia farmers market are finally a reality again. That’s right. “It has never looked as good as it does right now,” according to Angie Warkentin, market manager, director and organizer of all Tulare County Farmers Markets.

Angie grew up believing that everyone should have a direct connection to farmers for their produce needs, which sparked her desire to start volunteering 15 years ago. With five years of full-time experience under her belt, Angie has stayed busier than 5 p.m. traffic in Los Angeles. This past year has proven to be one of the most challenging. When most businesses closed for the better part of the pandemic, her work continued full steam ahead.

With the statewide shutdown, farmers markets were forced to close. Government officials initially ignored the farmers markets’ status as a food source, so Angie quickly reached out to the community for help. She pulled from local expertise to find a way, despite rising pandemic conditions. After long hours of brainstorming with the health department, the plan for a contactless drive-through farmers market was born. This out-of-the-box solution meant that the Visalia Farmers Market could reopen after only one weekend of closure.

Meanwhile, running on little to no sleep, Angie set forth to maintain the safety of customers by implementing COVID protocols before they were in existence. Safety started with minimal contact with the produce, mandated masks and social distancing. This, along with a tremendous amount of caution tape and spray paint, was the start of the Visalia Farmers Market drive-through.

Markets across the state were closed for months, but not Visalia’s. These initiatives was shared with nearby markets in order to get them up and running. Angie was willing to do what had to be done to keep people safe, with food on their plates.

The efforts did not stop there. Another addition that paved the way for reopening was Angie’s idea for an online farmers market. Never before had this been done in California (in terms of accepting Calfresh and WIC). The Farm Fresh Box Program started with the help of volunteers and the support of outside agencies (a huge thank you to those who were involved). Sharing nutritional produce to all customers created a new way to online shop, whether it was ordering pre-made, certified organic boxes or individualized packages chosen from a list of 50 items each week.

On the first day of the program, 25 orders were placed. Then two weeks later, 200 orders were placed within 20 minutes of the store opening, causing the website to crash. These custom orders were going hot off the shelves! With the success of this online platform, other markets took notice. Three webinars were held to show other farmers market managers how to set up an online store. Angie’s initiative created a chain reaction in other cities, impacting countless communities beyond Visalia.

Can you believe both an in-person drive-through farmers market and the online Farm Fresh Box Program were running in Visalia consistently throughout the pandemic? This past year was a real test of Angie’s abilities as the main director, and boy did she come through in a time when it was needed most. Her driving force was to “keep the community fed and make sure everyone had access to healthy food.”

For the farmers, this drive-through was an answer to prayers. Angie’s proactive management allowed them to continue moving their produce to the community. Despite the local economic downfall resulting from the pandemic, online sales at the market went through the roof. The reliance of market sales throughout this time kept many local farmers afloat. Vendors were grateful for Angie’s commitment to sustain this platform and provide locals with fresh produce when they needed it most. While most farmers markets across the state were closed for months, the Visalia Farmers Market remained open.

… But the story doesn’t end there!

What’s going on now that things are getting back to normal, you might ask? As of April, all vendors were able to come back as part of the market. Even crazier than that, big cities are beginning to come to small-town Visalia, bringing specialty items like fresh seafood from the coast (yum!). Everything Angie has worked hard to achieve for this community has made quite a “big farmers market in our little town!”

Not all markets in the county are open yet, but the good news is, they will be back in full swing next summer. Angie has worked diligently to provide a strong market, and it is because of the great people who reside here that it is a joy to continue improving upon what is one of Visalia’s best attractions. Angie made it clear that “Visalia shows up!” So let’s keep showing up for our local businesses and for each other.

On behalf of the farmers, vendors and the rest of the Visalia community, thank you Angie for all your hard work!

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