Local Farmers Markets Cope with COVID-19

by Martha Jackson Suquet – Berkshire Grown,  co-owner of Graylight Farm

In Pittsfield, community members get their fresh local produce via their local farmers market, but this year the market experience is a bit different. Instead of wandering among market booths, customers place their orders online and market volunteers deliver the locally-grown products to the buyer’s doorstep. Roots Rising, which operates the Pittsfield Farmers Market, has responded to the COVID-19 crisis by switching to an entirely virtual farmers market. The organization understood the impact that the pandemic would have on their customers, and worked hard to keep the market going while keeping farmers and customers safe. “Even in the best of times, local food is often priced out of reach, and our market has always had strong food justice programs that are designed to make local food accessible. With these programs shut down along with the market, it left a big gap for food access in Pittsfield,” according to Jamie Samowitz and Jess Vecchia, Co-Directors of Roots Rising. “We knew that we needed to create a virtual market that offered substantial financial assistance.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought changes to almost every aspect of life, including farmers markets. Market managers and organizing committees have had to be creative, flexible, and determined as they implement new safety measures and continue the important work of connecting community members to locally-grown products.

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, Berkshire Grown has worked to help farmers and markets adjust their plans, access resources, and understand new regulations. Starting in April, Berkshire Grown held a series of virtual conversations among market managers, facilitating discussions about how to open markets safely. Through a USDA grant administered by Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, markets have been supplied with customer-friendly signage as well as behind-the-scenes guidance to make new procedures easier for shoppers to understand. Berkshire Grown staff has also continued helping markets get set up to offer SNAP and HIP purchasing capabilities to shoppers- an option that is especially critical during this time of upheaval. “Berkshire Grown is a resource for busy farmers and market managers,” says Jessica Camp, Program Manager. “Sometimes we’re able to help them in-house with issues like processing SNAP and HIP benefits, or we connect them with outside resources and funding.”

In general, farmers markets have been declared “essential,” and have continued to operate during shutdowns. As the COVID-19 guidelines from the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources point out, “maintaining and increasing access to local food is essential, particularly in times of unsteadiness.” In Massachusetts, safety recommendations for markets include social distancing, sanitizing tables, pre-packaging products whenever possible, and of course, wearing masks and washing hands frequently. New York’s guidelines are similar, but also prohibit live music and on-site dining at markets.

At the Copake Hillsdale Farmers Market, vendors set up their tables six feet apart. Face masks are required for vendors and customers, and a safe traffic flow has been created with one entry point and one exit. Customers are encouraged not to linger at the market. It’s different than most seasons, when the market has staged live music and served as a social gathering spot as well as a grocery shopping trip for customers. Market manager Nicole Friedrich says the new market vibe is “friendly and relaxed while still maintaining all the safety measures we need to have in place.”

Lee Farmers Market manager Kathy DeVarennes highlights the challenges of keeping vendors and customers safe at the market: “I think the hardest part has been gently encouraging people to shop and leave” even though customers are hungry for social interactions after so much isolation. Still, she notes that everyone is happy to be back at the market.

Despite the changes required, many markets are experiencing a successful season, and they remain an important part of the local food supply chain. Roots Rising reports that since the opening of their Virtual Farmers Market in Pittsfield, they “have packed and delivered 2,400 orders, generated almost $86,000 in income for our farmers and food producers, and given out almost $28,000 in fresh food to our low-income neighbors.” The Copake Hillsdale Farmers Market has seen more SNAP customers and an overall increase in market attendance.

In the midst of a global crisis, it’s heartening to see that communities continue to support their local farmers, and that farmers and markets are able to play a major role in feeding community members. If you haven’t done so already, put on your mask, follow social distancing guidelines, and head out to your nearest farmers market this week to share in the bounty of our region. And remember – thank your farmers!