This is the first of a special three-part series by Martha Wagner and Mi Ae Lipe about how COVID-19 has transformed the local food scene of farmers markets, farms, and victory gardens.

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It was only weeks ago that people worked in and ate at restaurants, looked forward to hanging out at their favorite farmers market, didn’t have to wear a face mask to go grocery shopping or stay six feet apart, and didn’t have to wait in long lines at food banks. The coronavirus is both disaster and opportunity, depending on one’s personal circumstances. But in this anxiety-laced landscape of uncertainty, one thing is clear: The demand for safe, local, fresh food—and ensuring the supply of it—has skyrocketed beyond everyone’s imaginations.

It’s also a time when many people are questioning their best choices for bringing that food home, and many are also opting to grow some their own as a way of increasing food security while engaging in a useful activity and reducing time spent in grocery stores.

Markets Are in Flux, But Vendors Need Your Business

If farmers markets are one of the things you most look forward to every spring—with vendors inviting you to taste their strawberries, cheeses, or first-of-the-season asparagus—be prepared for a very different experience this year.

Markets in many northern, eastern, and mountain states typically open in May or June. But year-round markets and those already open in milder climates are having to adapt at warp speed to changing safety requirements. Ever since stay-at-home orders began being issued in mid-March in many parts of the country, the status of farmers markets has been in flux. Now, over a dozen states have declared them to be essential businesses, like grocery stores, but most have not offered concrete guidance on safety changes.

Increased spacing between vendor booths at the Portland Farmers Market in Oregon. Photo courtesy of PFM.

This has left market staff scrambling to quickly figure out new ways to operate while also complying with local health authority restrictions and satisfying the general public’s concerns. As a result, some markets plan to delay opening while others will not open at all.

But, farmers, bakers, ranchers, and other food producers still want—and absolutely need—to sell you their food. Their livelihoods depend on it, and even more so now that their restaurant business (which many farmers rely on for significant income) has tanked. But markets now require vendors to follow new rules and they’re asking shoppers to do so too.

In Oregon, the Portland Farmers Market operates a year-round flagship downtown market on the Portland State University campus as well as four other seasonal markets due to open in May and June. Portland Farmers Market Communications and Marketing Manager Ian Rose has witnessed the many changes since the COVID-19 crisis began.

With current shortages of flour and other baking supplies, Rose says that some market bakers are now selling small bags of various flours. Much of the produce at the market is now prebagged. He says that the number of customers seems to be down, but that the people who do come are buying more and stocking up.

Portland Farmers Market at Portland State University

Vendor display at the Portland Farmers Market at Portland State University. Photo courtesy of PFM.

“Some farmers are doing very well, but many have lost large restaurant contracts,” he said. “We’re lucky with our PSU market that the city has provided us with additional space for social distancing. In the past, we had weekly entertainment, kids and adult cooking classes, and special events, but now we’re just about food, and so far it’s working out. Our message to customers is that we’re all in this together. It’s a big challenge, though.”

“We have farmers considering now whether or not to plant for the summer. We know that not all local farms are doing well. Our mission is to serve both the public and the farmers. The majority of our customers are thanking us for staying open. We believe we’re at least as safe as grocery stores. We’re also glad to be able to continue to support SNAP (food stamp) participants as in past years.”

Shop and Go Home, Skip the Schmooze Time This Year

One of the first challenges facing farmers markets this spring is how to quickly adapt existing market space to fit social distancing needs for both vendors and shoppers. A six-foot distance—or more—is the order of the day, of course, but details vary from market to market.

Typically, very limited numbers of shoppers are being allowed into a market at a time, vendor tents are spaced further apart, and food sampling is not permitted. Nor is touching food with or without a gloved hand, and much of the produce on tables is for display purposes only—the actual goods are accessible only to the vendors.

Vendors and market staff are frequently cleaning surfaces with bleach, prebagging produce to eliminate scales and weighing, and separating food handling and payments at vendor stalls. Many markets around the country are also not accepting cash payments to minimize the spread of the virus. And vendors are required to follow extra premarket precautions when harvesting and packing.

Corvallis Farmers Market Social Distancing Sign

New rules at the Corvallis Farmers Market, Oregon. Photo by Martha Wagner.

Tips for Shopping at the Farmers Market

Markets are usually social hotbeds, but not this year. In fact, many markets have put away tables and chairs to discourage eating and conversation. Before you head for your favorite market, it’s smart to check out its website, where you’ll find up-to-date guidelines such as these:

  • Come prepared with a shopping list or plan, so you can shop quickly and help vendors keep the lines moving; if possible, try to complete your shopping in 30 minutes or less.
  • Shop early to avoid the crowds, but also respect special shopping times set up for seniors or high-risk groups if your market is doing this.
  • Order items online from a favorite vendor ahead of time if possible.
  • If you’re sick or in a high-risk group, stay home. Consider shopping for a neighbor, especially if they are in a vulnerable population.
  • Wear face masks and gloves (some markets require this).
  • Wash your hands before and after coming to the market, and use handwashing/sanitizing stations provided at the market. Avoid touching your face while shopping.
  • You can bring your own personal shopping bags, but vendors are not accepting personal produce bags.
  • Respect social distancing while shopping and waiting in line, leaving six feet between yourself and other shoppers and vendors; many markets have floor tape and cones set up as guides.
  • Leave your family at home and try to come by yourself or with only one other person; parents should keep their children close.
  • Leave pets at home unless they are service animals.
  • Expect no entertainment, classes, food sampling, or eating onsite. Prepared food is to-go only.
  • Skip the schmooze time and exit as soon as possible to make room for another shopper.
  • Bring a credit or debit card; many vendors are not accepting cash.
  • Be kind, patient, and flexible, even if lines are long and selection is limited.
  • And don’t forget to thank farmers and vendors—they’re under a lot of extra stress these days and are working extremely hard to supply fresh food in this crisis!

Holly Leist of Little Pond Farm loads a box of preordered produced into a customer’s car at the retooled Saturday Morning Market in St. Petersburg, Florida, on March 21. © Boyzell Hosey/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMAPRESS.com.

Curbside and Contactless

If you don’t feel safe enough to shop at a farmers market, you may be able to preorder boxes directly from farms and other sellers, or have the market put together a curated box that will be brought out to your vehicle for curbside, contactless pickup. That’s what many markets from San Francisco to Maryland are offering.

For shoppers who can’t get to a market, some are offering lists of sellers participating in home delivery. For instance, the Portland Farmers Markets has a Find Our Vendors Outside of Market page on its website that provides online ordering information for close to 200 farms and local producers, CSA programs, and other food purveyors.

Drive-through is also fast becoming an option, with shoppers literally driving from stand to stand to browse and buy, as in the case of the Hancock County’s Farmers Market in Mississippi. The market had initially been closed for its first five weeks, but it switched to this format on April 25. Although it created traffic jams and long delays, customers felt that it was worth it to get the fresh food, and vendors are grateful to be selling again.

Start getting used to these new alternative arrangements—markets all over the country are quickly adopting curbside, contactless, and preordering online as the new normal. Some of these new ways of doing business may continue long after the pandemic and perhaps benefit everyone: market staff, vendors, and shoppers.

Many markets are sharing ideas through groups like the Farmers Market Coalition, which has members in every state and has been hosting webinars recently that draw up to 500 people. Farmers and markets are creating new processes and solutions on their own, says Ben Feldman, executive director of the Coalition. Like farmers and markets, the organization is also focused on the current uncertain economic fallout. “We’re pushing for compensation,” he says.

More on that in Part 2—how CSA farms and local producers are faring in these rollercoaster times.

Additional  Resources

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Featured image on top: Union Square Greenmarket in New York posts its COVID-19 procedures on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. (Richard B. Levine for Alamy.)

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