Same food, less fun: Farmers’ markets adjust to coronavirus

Wearing gloves and a mask, a merchant fills an order at the Rochester Farmers Market. Photo by CHOOCHOO-ca-CHEW/Tiffany Alexandria.

On a recent Saturday, customers walked single-file through Mill City Farmers Market, like Catholics in line for communion. If they wanted to purchase something, they asked the vendor to pick it out for them. Sampling, touching and eating onsite are all prohibited. 

Ibrahim Mohamed, who has sold Ethiopian chutney at the Mill City market for several years, said traffic for the first outdoor market of the season was slower than normal. Mohamed said despite social distancing guidelines, he’s still able to have conversations with regular customers. 

“A lot of vendors have that relationship,” Mohamed said. 

Farmers markets are usually as much a social event as a commercial one, but they look very different with pandemic physical distancing guidelines in place. Guests are encouraged to wear face masks, and Xs marked on the pavement are intended to keep customers in line apart from one another. 

The roughly 300 farmers’ markets across the state are preparing for their busy season, with many opening outdoors for the first time this month. Markets will continue to open throughout the summer. 

Kim Guenther, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association, said the markets have always been important to smaller communities and rural areas across the state. 

“So it’s really a great opportunity for farmers. And a great opportunity especially in some of those rural communities where they maybe don’t even have a grocery store in their community but they may have a farmers’ market,” Guenther said. 

Online orders are ready to go at Prairie Hollow Farm’s table at Mill City Farmers Market. An increase in online ordering is one way farmers’ markets are trying to keep everyone safe. Photo by Madeline Deninger/Minnesota Reformer.

Classified as an essential business under Gov. Tim Walz’s executive orders that until recently closed most retail businesses, markets and vendors are finding their own solutions to keep themselves and customers safe, though market managers say it’s uncharted territory.

David Kotsonas, manager of the St. Paul Farmers Market, said the market has tried a number of policies to keep consumers safe. Some work, some don’t, he said. The market’s winter setup allowed Kotsonas to experiment with different safety guidelines. 

Kotsonas found that encouraging vendors to keep a table between their stands and customers allowed for more room. The market also tried using caution tape to keep customers in a line, but that didn’t help people keep their distance, Kotsanas said. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no evidence that anyone has contracted COVID-19 through contact with food containers or packaging. The virus may linger on produce, though it’s unclear if this can cause people to become sick. 

Guidelines from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention stress physical distancing from other people as one of the best ways to prevent transmission for food retailers and customers, including maintaining a distancing of six feet when possible. 

As curbside pick-up becomes the norm for restaurants in the state, farmers markets are also taking advantage of that option to limit in-person contact. 

The Rochester Farmers Market allows customers to shop online and select products from multiple vendors. Volunteers then pack up orders for delivery and pick-up. Rochester Farmers’ Market manager Jessica Joyce said staffing for online orders has been one of the biggest adjustments, but volunteers have been easy to recruit. 

The market also offers a physical market and drive-through option. Joyce said it was important to offer both online orders and in-person options because some vendors might not have access to the internet. 

Produce from Prairie Hollow Farm at the Mill City Farmers Market. Photo by Madeline Deninger/Minnesota Reformer.

Like St. Paul, the Rochester Farmers Market had a chance to test out its COVID-19 procedures at its winter market. Traffic at the winter market is more predictable even with COVID-19 restrictions  because the customer base is more loyal, Joyce said. 

The market’s transition to its outdoor season brings more uncertainty. Joyce said they’ll use the first markets as a trial to determine if additional social distancing measures need to be put into place, which could include capacity limits or a “one in, one out policy.” 

“You don’t want to seem like you’re controlling people,” Joyce said. 

Prairie Hollow Farm in Elgin sells produce, bread and cheese at the Rochester Farmers Market and at the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis. Like Rochester, the Mill City market uses online orders to limit in-person contact. 

Owner Pam Benike said the new system has meant big changes in how the farm prepares its products. 

While the farm used to pack up all of its products into packs and put them out on the table at the market, the focus has shifted to individual orders and separate packaging. At the Mill City market, two additional workers were brought on to help with online orders. 

Benike said the markets are more important than ever for farmers, as sales to restaurants and schools have halted. On the other hand, one benefit to COVID-19 closures is that high school students out of school and work have been able to take jobs helping pack orders, Benike said. 

“We have to be willing and comfortable to operate in this state of flux,” Benike said.