For many Minnesotans, a Saturday at the farmers market, with foods, friends and family is one of the simple joys of summer.
But those markets will look different this year. They have remained open, deemed essential businesses under Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order. Although it’s unclear what restrictions on business and gathering will be in place as markets gear up for a busy summer, Twin Cities farmers markets are making plans to keep vendors and customers safe.
Social distancing at the market
Though they mean a change of character for farmers markets, some of the mandates for staying open under Walz’s executive order, like a temporary end to food consumption on site, are relatively easy for markets to do.
Coming up with plans for social distancing required a bit more creativity.
At the St. Paul Farmers Market, in the city’s Lowertown neighborhood, market manager David Kotsonas has been thinking about how the market would respond to the pandemic since the coronavirus outbreak worsened in Washington state.
Early in the season is relatively quiet for the St. Paul Farmers Market, but as the growing season progresses, Kotsonas has drawn up plans to create one-way traffic flow for people walking through the market. Other changes planned for the market’s layout include stalls facing opposite directions and empty stalls between some vendors to create space. When it gets busy, the market may also have fewer entry and exit points than in the past. Already, empty tables have been placed between vendors and customers to create physical distancing.
If needed, Kotsonas said, the market will limit the number of people who can enter, something some grocery stores have done to allow enough space between customers. He estimates about 760 customers can safely shop at the market at once, when under normal conditions, a busy weekend day might bring 3,000 people to the market at a time.
Farmers markets normally operate as community gathering spaces, but this year, many markets are asking people to send just one family member to the market to shop.
“I would love it if people saw these as covert operations, like they’ve got to get in and get their groceries, get out, stay healthy and be quick about it,” Kotsonas said.
He hopes customers take health precautions as seriously as the farmers markets are taking it because for many, the markets provide critical access to food.
“There’s a lot at stake in keeping the farmers markets open,” he said.
When the Minneapolis Farmers Market opens for the season on Saturday, it is also going to place tables between vendors and customers, among other social distancing measures.
“The history of the farmers market is for people to be close to one another, to interact, to communicate about how the season is going, for customers to talk to their favorite vendors and catch up and what not,” said Mao Lee, the market’s manager. “The table just serves as a physical reminder that we need to stay further apart from one another than we have in the past.”
Among the other COVID-19 changes at local farmers markets? Vendors at many of the markets will be wearing gloves and masks, and asking customers to wear masks, too. Some are asking customers not to touch produce until after they’ve purchased it, and to be careful when they bring their own reusable bags. Many markets, have placed hand washing stations at entrances and some are making it easier to place orders directly through vendors online to facilitate less contact in payment and pickup.
Vendors worry about finances, health
All of these changes raise questions for farmers market vendors: not the least of which is how many customers will show up to farmers markets this year?
Janssen Hang, the executive director of the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA), said farmers are bracing themselves for this season when people are hunkering down at home, and many have anxiety as they make decisions about what to plant and how much to grow.
Many HAFA farmers are dependent on farming for their livelihood, and farmers markets make up between 60 percent and 70 percent of their income.
In response to uncertainty, HAFA has been marketing its community-supported agriculture, or CSA program, more heavily. Under the program, customers sign up to buy a box of vegetables over the course of the summer, picked up weekly at many different locations across the Twin Cities.
Farmers aren’t just worried about their finances, but also their health. Lots of vendors who sell produce at farmers markets are in their sixties and seventies, part of a population more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19.
Hang says this season, customers are likely to see younger members of some of these families step in to work at the farmers markets in order to keep their loved ones safe.
Keeping markets alive
The Midtown Farmers Market in Minneapolis’ Corcoran neighborhood, will have no entertainment or artists displays when it opens for the season next weekend. Some prepared food vendors have opted not to sell at the market this year, as have some craft vendors, said Alicia Smith, the market’s executive director. And there won’t be community space for mingling at the market as there’s been in the past due to the pandemic.
“It forced us to go from a community model to a transactional space, which is difficult when you’re building community and building neighborhoods,” Smith said.
But while farmers markets might feel different this summer, shopping at them is critical to supporting local farmers.
“I want to stress to folks to please shop with your local farmers market. Because it is imperative and overly important for our vendors to be able to make a living,” Smith said.
If you go: Given the times we’re living in, it might be a good idea to familiarize yourself with social distancing plans at your local farmers market before you visit. Here are plans for the Midtown, Minneapolis and St. Paul markets.