Farmers markets return to pre-COVID conditions

Published 2:43 pm Thursday, May 20, 2021

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The spring opening of local farmers markets is a welcome return to normalcy for both farmers and consumers. 

Last spring many farmers had to shift to online ordering, requiring some to create internet sites. Market operators had to develop touchless delivery systems and provide hand-washing stations, increase space between booths, and limit in-person attendance.

Most of those restrictions have been lifted or eased under Gov. Ralph Northam’s latest executive order regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. But a few remain in place, including physical distancing of vendors and mandatory face masks for vendors and shoppers.

“Compared to this time last year, preorders are down, but all of the farmers that did have or created an online store are continuing to take those (orders),” Ricky Kowalewski, market manager for the Lynchburg Community Market, said. “We’re slowly getting back to pre-COVID attendance numbers.”

Customers at the Charlottesville farmers market sites have had to preorder and pick up their produce remotely since last spring. Market manager Justin McKenzie said his vendors are eager to return to face-to-face sales. 

“It was nice for producers to know exactly how much to bring” thanks to preordering, McKenzie said. “But this year I see a shift in consumer habits. People are not ordering online as much anymore. People are ready to shop in person and see the product in person.”

Adapting to physical distancing is one challenge market operators still need to overcome. Another is pushback from customers who don’t want to wear masks.

“With the CDC saying vaccinated people don’t need to wear a mask, now it’s even worse for us to say, ‘You have to put on a mask,’” said Amy Jordan, co-manager of several Hampton Roads markets. “So we’re put in a very difficult position. People are screaming in our faces about their rights, and that we’re outside, etc.”

Kim Hutchinson, executive director of the Virginia Farmers Market Association, said the governor’s latest guidelines treat farmers markets as large groups of unrelated people congregating; therefore, masks are still needed. The trade group represents about 350 market sites statewide.

“It’s challenging. A market like Charlottesville could have 5,000 people go through it on a Saturday, while some smaller markets may have less than 1,000 people all weekend,” Hutchinson explained. “So many managers are opting to keep strict sanitary guidelines in place. We’re urging our market managers to be very clear what the market rules are for each site in their advertising and social media posts.”

On the bright side, there are more customers than ever, she noted.

“Though sales are not what they were last year at the height of the pandemic, we’re continuing to see a 35% to 40% retention of new customers we picked up last year at farmers markets. I hope that will increase as we start to see seasonal items like fresh tomatoes become available,” Hutchinson said.