Farmers Markets sprouting up despite COVID

Some are concerned the social aspect of getting coffee and casually browsing and talking with the vendors (like in this photo) at Farmers Markets would be diminished due to the social distancing guidelines.

It’s that time of year when local farmers markets begin opening with their selections of fresh, locally grown vegetables and fruits, honey, jams, artisan goods, plants, handcrafts and more. The question this year is: what kinds of changes will they see due to the COVID-19 outbreak? 

Cambridge Farmers Market opened for business on Saturday, May 9. To minimize risks associated with the virus, market president Chris Kiesz followed a list of guidelines released by the Minnesota Farmers Market Association (see sidebar). 

As expected, the list includes recommendations to move shoppers through the market space in one direction using social distancing methods while minimizing contact between vendor and shopper. Handwashing stations, frequent disinfecting by vendors and the wearing of masks by buyers and sellers is encouraged. 

“Other than the spacing and handwashing station, it’s basically the same,” said Kiesz, who is also a vendor at the Cambridge market for Yellow Hutch Farm out of Braham. “We’re more spread out. We can’t have fancy tablecloths and things like that, but nobody seems to mind.”

The Cambridge market is the first to open locally, and will be followed by Almelund’s on May 22, Isanti’s market the last Friday in May, Braham and Harris in June, and North Branch in July. Reports from coordinators of those markets reveal all vendors are in the same boat. 

Isanti’s approximately 10 vendors got the memo outlining changes they must make, and according to market manager Jenny Garvey, she’ll be “on-site to ensure everyone is following our guidelines and keeping the vendors and customers as safe as we can.” 

North Branch market director Joleen Pierce is confident her sellers will handle the changes without difficulty. 

“We are a very small market,” she said, “and the vendors I have – most have been here for years. We all help and look out for each other, so I think we all will do all we can to make our market a safe environment to visit.” 

CONCERN ABOUT CHANGES

Although the directors’ consensus is that they expect few problems with the new recommendations, there were a few areas that caused concern by taking away some of the little, expected pleasures offered by farmers markets. 

“MFMA was trying to set these guidelines to discourage people from loitering and socializing,” said Kiesz. “I don’t know how that’s going to work. Farmers market is a social thing for people. They get their coffee and browse around. So we’ll see how it goes.” 

Another concern is that there is no sampling or on-site consumption of food allowed, according to Isanti’s Garvey, taking away another attraction that draws people to the fresh foods and baked goods at their favorite vendors’ tables. 

And touching food and other products is strongly discouraged – even though most shoppers check produce for freshness by giving a squeeze. 

“I don’t want you to pick up 20 tomatoes and set them back down,” said Braham’s co-director Dan Loerzel and longtime produce vendor.

The rate at which things are changing is also a concern. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture sent out guidelines in April, but North Branch’s Pierce said, “I’m not sure if all will remain the same when we open in July.” 

So the bottom line, according to the local market directors, is to do a quick check of a farmers market’s Facebook page or website to verify it’s operating as scheduled and see what’s required of shoppers – will you need to wear a mask? Are cash transactions allowed? Be ready to be flexible.

“It’s important to get into the proper mindset,” said Braham’s co-director Jean Loerzel. “The market will look very different this year. These things are in place for both the shoppers’ and vendors’ well-being.” 

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