May usually marks the beginning of the farmers market season in Massachusetts. Through much of spring, all of summer, and most of fall, more than 200 farmers markets operate across the state. Under normal circumstances, these markets function as much as a community building exercise as they do a commercial space — patrons can interact with local producers and get to know their neighbors.
But this, of course, is no ordinary farmers market season. Instead of procuring appropriate permits or finding the best local kale producer, farmers market administrators are scrambling to adapt their upcoming (and in some cases ongoing) markets to a world altered by COVID-19. The pandemic is forcing farmers market administrators to reimagine what their markets will look like in 2020 — and perhaps beyond. And that means trying to figure out how to keep everyone healthy and safe, while still providing a vital service.
“Faced with the changing public health landscape, we saw a lot of obstacles to achieving our mission — providing access to local food for customers of all income levels, while supporting local food producers and the local food system, and creating a meaningful community gathering space — while also supporting all the guidelines around the best way to keep our communities healthy and safe,” says Jess Bloomer. She manages the Somerville Winter Farmers Market, which operates indoors at the Arts at the Armory Building on Highland Avenue and hosts 35 vendors and 1,200 patrons each weekend.
The market closed for two weeks in March in order to assess how it could safely operate amid the pandemic, Bloomer says. It had initially planned to wrap up its season on April 11 but will now remain open through the end of the month to help vendors impacted by the temporary closure.
Farmers markets, farm stands, and CSAs are considered essential businesses — like grocery stores — and are allowed to operate during the pandemic. Recently, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources (MDAR) issued a guidance memo aimed at helping administrators ensure that their farm stands and markets offer safe conditions for patrons and vendors alike. In addition to the state’s guidelines, the boards of health in individual cities and towns may establish even stricter guidelines.
“Maintaining and increasing access to local food is essential, particularly in times of unsteadiness,” the memo stated. “The Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, along with its state and federal partners, are focused on enabling farm stands and farmers markets to sell safe, healthy, and local products during the COVID-19 response.”
The MDAR memo suggests farmers markets should adhere to the following guidelines: Ensure patrons and vendors are practicing proper social distancing; eliminate product samples; minimize the amount of people (patrons and vendors) touching produce; disallow the use of reusable bags; sanitize market displays and tables; provide hand-washing and sanitation stations; wear gloves when handling produce; minimize cash transactions; and plan for cancellations.
Everyone interviewed for this story agrees that the MDAR’s guidelines are necessary. That said, instituting some of those guidelines will be tricky — and expensive.
“Farmers markets will need additional assistance this year,” says Edith Murnane, the executive director of Mass Farmers Markets, a nonprofit organization that operates farmers markets in Cambridge’s Central Square, Boston’s Copley Square, and Somerville’s Davis Square. The organization is working with MDAR and the Executive Office of Health and Human Services to develop guidelines to help market administrators create healthy environments. Following those guidelines will incur necessary additional costs in the form of (for example) hand-washing and sanitation stations and informational signage.
But while the physical realities of farmers markets may change for a bit, Murnane remains hopeful that most will open on schedule and provide a welcome distraction from the isolation that so many folks are experiencing due to the pandemic.
“There will be a physical distance, but there won’t be an emotional distance,” she says. “You’re still going to be able to say hello or ask, ‘How do I cook my rabe?’ You’ll still be able to ask those questions and engage in that way.”
It’s still unclear whether some farmers markets will open as scheduled. That’s the case at SoWa Open Market, which usually hosts up to 80 vendors ranging from farmers to food trucks each Sunday from May through October in Boston’s South End.
“The SoWa farmers market is classified as essential by the state and we’re currently talking to the city about whether we should open in May,” says Ali Horeanopoulos, SoWa’s marketing and events manager. “We’re also reviewing the protocols that Massachusetts has been formulating around farmers market safety. We’ve seen long lines at grocery stores in and around Boston, and if our farmers feel safe helping alleviate that stressor and we can provide a safe environment for customers, then we want to help. We’re not exactly sure of the timeline yet, but our primary concern is the safety of the vendors and of the public, and we’ll be seeking guidance from the city.” The openings for SoWa’s other open markets will likely be postponed, Horeanopoulos adds.
Despite the challenges inherent to operating amid a pandemic, the farmers market community has resolved to help its patrons and vendors get what they need. SoWa is signal-boosting its vendors on its social channels to encourage their online sales, while the Somerville Winter Farmers Market extended its season and is emailing customers about how to order from its vendors online. And Mass Farmers Markets, says Murnane, is setting up a fund to raise at least $114,000 that will be distributed in $500 chunks to farmers markets across the state to help them pay for hand-washing and sanitization stations and new signage required by the MDAR guidelines.
While this farmers market season will certainly look different than past farmers market seasons, it will still occur nonetheless.
“Social distancing will probably be in place for the whole market season,” Murnane says. “I see this as being the new normal for the immediate future. But there’s a longer-term future where people remember that farmers markets are at the center of their communities. It’s a wonderful place to see their neighbors, even if just a wave or a nod of hello. This is a way to feel connected to everyone in your community.”
• COVID-19 Coverage on Eater [EBOS]