Sep 7, 2020
Farmers’ markets prove to be essential, resilient

Ninety percent of my work during the COVID-19 crisis has been with farmers’ markets throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The very day that Gov. Tom Wolf announced the closure of schools and businesses, Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding posted a photo of himself shopping at a farm market and stating that “farmers’ markets and on-farm markets are essential businesses.”

This was very important because it allowed markets to stay open and to help market managers put guidelines in place to operate safely across the commonwealth.

My Extension colleagues and I assisted managers with these guidelines through webinars, articles, news items and a weekly Market Manager Forum where managers can share best practices.

Market managers had to completely redesign their markets to be the opposite of what they were originally designed to be. Markets typically are places where a community comes to not only shop, but to gather, eat and engage. Now, markets are set up in a way that keeps people at a distance. Customers are encouraged to preorder, shop quickly and practice grab-and-go.

The term that I keep using to describe what market managers had to do is “herculean.” Market managers are usually poorly compensated for their work in the best of times. At many markets, management is done by volunteers. Here is what a couple of managers shared with me:

“We need about four to five volunteers. Some are from vendor businesses. Some from the community. We plan on having three people directly guiding customers through the market.”

“We require all vendors to have a separate person to handle checkout. If they’re too small to do so, we provided a volunteer to those folks.”

Disruptions in the conventional food system meant that markets attracted customers who have never been to our markets. Very quickly vendors were reporting higher gross sales.

Markets and vendors had to create online ordering systems very quickly for customers to preorder and prepay. Some markets instituted timed pickup where customers were assigned a 15-minute window when they could pick up their orders to limit the number of people that were at the market at any given time.

Online ordering continues even as markets opened for the regular season and allowing customers to shop or preorder. We expect this to continue as it builds a level of convenience for customers, particularly those who have never shopped at the markets before COVID-19.

Most markets lack the capacity to collect sales data, but those that do have shared that their year-over-year gross sales to date for the market are higher. Even as we have encouraged customers to only send one household member to market to shop, they are spending more.

Because of the values-oriented approach of farmers’ markets – prioritizing their vendor’s financial sustainability, community health and well-being, and overall economic development – we see that farmers’ markets have fielded some of the most dynamic, creative responses to the COVID-19 crisis; and all this despite a lack of financial resources.

Markets have shown themselves to be both essential and resilient parts of our local food systems.

— Brian Moyer, Penn State Extension; Jay Eury, Penn State Extension educator, contributed to this article.

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