For the past 30 years, farmers markets have been seen as idyllic spaces — bountiful, fresh food, direct to consumer sales, fair prices for the producer — but in the wake of COVID-19, farmers market workers have had to drastically modify their practices in order to stay safe and essential, according to Stephen Bradford and Hana Newcomb of Potomac Vegetable Farms.
The pair, an aunt/nephew duo, hosted a webinar for Future Harvest CASA addressing these concerns and sharing their learned advice with other farmers.
Markets are an essential income source for Potomac Vegetable Farms and many farms like it, accounting for one third of their income.
Though they are still attending farmers markets this year, they have altered their business model to grow their CSA, something that was originally a large portion of their income and has been gradually been declining over the years. This year they are supplementing their shares by tapping into their local network of vegetable farmers, and they have created a “solidarity share” for lower-income houses, half of which they cover, with the other half donated by shareholders.
At farmers markets, their guiding force has been a hands-off approach to their setup, completely different from their typical approach of allowing the customer to browse.
All of the food is kept in the back, and tables are used to create a barrier to keep customers out of the stand. Every item is an individual unit, either bagged, boxed or bunched, which requires more prep work at the farm and results in fewer employees going to the market.
“Maybe we’re beyond what’s necessary,” Newcomb said, adding that they are not ready to have customers touching food yet.
Their market stand typically has two employees, one handling the produce and the other payment, since cash is still common at farmers markets.
Many farmers enjoy farmers markets because it allows them to interact with the consumer, but those interactions have been altered.
“The job of the farmers market worker becomes navigating customers’ anxiety,” Bradford said, because the customer needs to feel comfortable getting what they need.
But despite the risk, he said there is a “strong interest and commitment to customers being there.”
In the early weeks of business closings, there was uncertainty over how farmers markets would be classified.
Maryland classified them as a grocery store, but Virginia decided they were equivalent to restaurants, limiting them to take-out only.
“When you’re at the grocery store you get to make choices on-site about what food you want,” said Newcomb, who advocated strongly to allow customers to make on-site choices at markets rather than adhering to pre-orders only.
Now, as the states have begun to open, markets have eased restrictions slightly, with some vendors allowing customers to browse.
But for Potomac Vegetable Farms, there are “no plans of altering market stands in the near future,” though they are concerned about how to market their tomatoes, a crop that customers like to choose for themselves.
Overall, though, their outlook is positive given the circumstances.
“At first I was disheartened by creative restraints of layout,” Bradford said. “But now I realize it allows for new dimensions.”