Farmers' Markets in the Time of COVID-19

Yes indeed, farmers' markets are operating again this year dispite COVID-19. The photo you see beside this article is proof positive. Here's what I bought at a farmers' market on opening day (June 7th) in Skokie, IL: from left to right, a Serbian apple pie (much like strudel and delicious), apple butter (like lighter, tasier applesauce), and a portabella mushroom--the biggest I've ever seen.


Did I feel frightened about being out in this world I now share with COVID-19?  Not really.  Regulations and guidance are in place to help farmers and their vendors keep customers safe. First, farmers' markets are mostly outdoor events which makes them much less risky than being indoors in a crowd.  Furthermore, just as our grocery stores and other shops have changed to accommodate ways of protecting consumers from novel germs and from people who are carrying them, farmers' markets have adopted many changes to deal properly with this weird new summer.  But these changes won't keep you from purchasing freshly picked produce from vendors who are eager to answer your questions about whatever you see there.


So what's different about this year's farmers' markets? Here's what I noticed immediately at the market I visited: there was more structure and less freedom than in past years.  At opposite ends of the area, there was an entrance and an exit, and a guard at each point.  This addition, I assumed, would allow crowd control if that was needed.  At 8:30 a.m., there was no need for crowd control.



Here's what else I noticed that was new: 1) booths were several feet apart from one another;  2) ropes blocked off  the front of each table so that visitors could not touch the food; 3) vendors were all wearing masks and gloves; 4) many display tables had signs posted that declared payment had to be made with a credit card. Most vendors were able to handle transactions without touching the customers' credit cards. 5) No tables for eating were in sight. Vendors selling ready-to-eat items encouraged customers to consume them in their cars or at home.  I think you're likely to find these same procedures at any market you visit.


In most areas of the country, a farmer cannot just arrive in some public place, set up a table, and begin selling his/her produce or other goods.  A permit is generally required, and that may be issued by a state government or some local government (county, city, village, etc.) The rules are somewhat different from one area to another. For example, as food scientist Dr. Karin Allen pointed out, “In Utah, the guidelines had to be consistent with state requirements, which focus more on businesses and less on private individuals.  Therefore, our farmer’s market guidelines include a lot of 'shoulds' for customers, but 'musts' for vendors.” But, in general, most guidelines created for farmers' market managers include the Center for Disease Control (CDC) advice about ways to achieve social distancing.  


How strictly visitors to any public site are scrutinized depends upon the nature of the place.  Entering a medical facility recently, I was questioned about my health and recent travels, and my temperature was taken.  At the farmers' market I attended, no one tried to assess how great a health risk I might present to others. But my presence wasn't totally ignored. I'm pretty sure I was counted.


Now let's answer some questions you may have about farmers' markets:


How do I find a farmers' market near my home?


Click here:

Type in your zip code and indicate the number of miles you're willing to travel to get there.  The closest farmers' market to you will show up at the top of the list. 


Once you have the name of the market most convenient for you to visit, look it up online to find directions to the site, the days and hours of operation,  perhaps info about what's sold there, and perhaps restrictions. The market I looked up told me that it sells flowers, it's a smoke-free environment, and no dogs are allowed. 


If you subscribe to a community newspaper or have a community website, you can check there for information about your local farmers' market.


How will COVID-19 affect the number of U.S. markets and the attendance this year?


An NPR article online said the number of farmers' markets in the U.S. in March 2019 totaled more than 8,600. The article also pointed out these problems: "There are too few farmers to populate the market stalls and too few customers filling their canvas bags with fresh produce at each market."  For example, the article continued, some areas in California, Nevada, and Wisconsin became saturated with too many small markets, so some of them closed.  


What will happen this farmers' market season, which usually runs form early June through September/October?  Two of our Shelf Life Advice Board scientists ventured these predictions:


Dr. Catherine Cutter, food scientist at Pennsylvania State University: Dr. Cutter is optimistic on both scores.  She tells us that, in many areas, university extension personnel have worked with farmers' market managers to teach the best ways to prepare for safe markets.   Cutter predicts attendance will increase.  Why?  Because consumers are tired of shortages in stores and will feel safer in the outdoor markets, assuming that they're following the CDC guidelines.  People also "would rather purchase directly from farmers than big box stores--and support local food production."


Dr. Karin Allen, food scientist at Utah State University: Regarding the number of farmers' markets in Utah, Dr. Allen thinks they may decline because some farmers find the restrictions more than they want to deal with.  She's also expecting that markets may be scaled back with fewer vendors (due to illness) and less produce (due to bad weather during the growing season as well as problems getting sufficient numbers of workers to pick crops). There won't be as much selection, she predicts.


How will consumers feel about the markets?  Dr. Allen thinks they will feel safe shopping there because only the vendors touch the food and because of other new precautions that protect against COVID-19.  


Who should and shouldn't come to a farmers' market?


Some guidelines for markets recommend adults only, and Dr. Allen also says, "I would not recommend bringing children."  Kids (especially young ones) may not understand or follow the distancing rules and will try to go under the ropes, touch the food, and pull off their masks. Some guidelines recommend that just one member of a family go alone.  [Editor's note: Too bad. In past years, these markets have often been an enjoyable family outing for kids in strollers, older siblings, and even grandparents. Some larger markets have displays for every age group--for example, clothing, jewelry, toys, summer hats, and costume jewelry.] 


What about seniors? Farmers' markets should be off limits for people who are immuno-compromised or those who have surgery scheduled in their near future, says Dr. Cutter.  Seniors in reasonably good health should put on their masks and gloves and shop on the mornings when it's less crowded.


What can I eat or drink at the market?


This year, don't plan to eat there. Just bring a bottle of water or juice and consume it from the bottle, which you return to your pocket when not drinking.  Do your shopping rather quickly, bring your snack home, and immediately wash your hands for 20 seconds.  Alternatively, if you're determined to eat your purchase before reaching home and a sink and soap, use your own portable hand sanitizer before snacking.  Farmers' markets are advised to have wash stations and hand sanitizers available for vendors and perhaps also for customers, but don't count on that.  Be prepared with sanitizer in your pocket, purse, or, at least, in your car. 

Will I save money by shopping at my local farmers' market?  If not, why should I go?


In all the years I've been visiting farmers' markets, I've rarely found a bargain. That may be in part because I tend to go early in the day within an hour of opening.  Why?  It's cooler and less crowded then, and I have a bigger choice of items.  (I go before the best produce has already been purchased.)  I've been told that, later in the day, prices are sometimes lowered because vendors don't want to bother bringing produce back to the farm.  But the selection may be  quite picked over or the items you want totally gone by the later hours.


The truth is, at these markets, you often pay more for each item than would in your local supermarket. I paid about $5 for my portabella mushroom and $6 for my jar of apple butter.  Not great bargains, right?  But I enjoyed discovering them.


 So, at the farmers' market, what do you get for your money?  These are the possible benefits: 1) the good feeling that you're helping your local farmers; 2)  produce that was recently picked and may taste better than your supermarket's produce, which may have traveled the world before reaching your home; 3) a chance to find some produce variations that are new to you and that you can ask the vendor about; 4) a pleasant outing on a nice summer day.  It's fun.  It's educational.  And, if it's open-air (most are) and not crowded, it's probably less risky than trip to your local supermarket.  


As Dr. Allen said, "You don't go to a farmers' market for bargains. You go for the experience."


What's our final word on fathers' market safety?


It comes from Penn State Extension's info entitled "Safe Practices at Farmers Markets Amidst COVID-19": "Outdoor markets are exposed to open air, sunlight, and temperature variation, all of which have been shown to be less conducive to viral survival than the uniformity of indoor environments."  That's the reassuring message about compliant farmers' market environments.  The rest is up to you and how you behave in this safer shopping area.


[Editor's note: To learn more about this topic, just type "farmers' markets" into the search box on our home page. You'll reach a long list of articles that deal with what to bring, what to buy, what signs indicate good hygiene, and what defines a farmers' market.]




Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Catherine Nettles Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Department of Food Science 


www.ams.usda "Local Food Directories: National Farmers Market Directory  "Why Are So Many Farmers' Markets Failing? Because the Market Is Saturated" "Minimizing Risks for Coronavirus Transmission at Farmers Markets, On-Farm Markets, You-Pick Operations, and Produce Auctions"




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