In recent years, Pennsylvania’s farmers markets have become not only places to buy fresh farm produce, but also places full of events with entertainment and perks like seasonal festivals to attract more shoppers. When the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in early 2020, farmers markets faced uncertain times in a new era where gatherings were discouraged. With a social distance of 6 feet required to prevent the spread of COVID-19, markets were faced with an entirely new challenge in how to attract and continue to function shoppers.
For farmers markets trying to decide how to deal with a pandemic, the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development became a major contributor, calling the markets “essential companies” supplying food during COVID-19. This meant that the markets could remain operational if they could find ways to protect their suppliers and customers.
With many decisions involved, a group of market managers from across Pennsylvania launched weekly online forums to discuss, brainstorm, share best practices, and support one another. Ideas emerged that answered questions they had never asked before. Suddenly, logistics and technology that previously seemed unnecessary for routine market transactions have become lifelines to staying afloat in a pandemic.
The results surprised market managers, sellers and buyers of farmers alike.
During Pasa Sustainable Agriculture’s most recent 2021 annual conference, held practically this year, farmers market managers from Pittsburgh, Easton, and Center Counties attended a webinar on the future of farmers markets. They discussed this topic in light of the lessons learned from their respective experiences of operating a public market during a pandemic.
Bloomfield Market redesigns site plan
Bloomfield Saturday Market operates from a parking lot in a Pittsburgh neighborhood. A consulting firm helped create a site map focused on market security during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Abigail Gildea runs the Bloomfield open air Saturday market in Pittsburgh. It offers both summer and winter farmers markets. All participating producers and producers must come from within 100 miles of the steel city. Bloomfield is advertised on its website as a “two-part farmers market and one-part weekly festival (from) May to November”.
The winter market takes place from December to March on the first and third Saturday and was concluded as a COVID-19 hit in early 2020. This enabled the Bloomfield team to decide whether and how operations should continue until the pandemic reopened on May 9th.
Gildea and her employer, Bloomfield Development Corp., are affiliated with Arup, an international company specializing in technologies normally related to moving people through airports and train stations. After analyzing the layout of the Bloomfield store, Arup designed a site plan with only one entry – to control pedestrian traffic in the store’s large parking lot.
Gildea reported that buying farm-fresh food outside during a pandemic added a whole new allure to their farmer’s market, even without the usual entertainment and special events. Their summer markets with 35 vendors had an average of 1,300 customers per Saturday; Some locals said this was the only place they went during COVID-19 as many other businesses would have to shut down temporarily. The Bloomfield Winter Market had 25 vendors with an average of 900 customers per week, twice as many as last year.
Because the distance between customers is limited and the wearing of masks is strictly observed, rush hour traffic found queues of customers waiting to enter the market. Gildea said entry isn’t limited to a specific number of buyers. Rather, management tried to assess whether there was overcrowding in a market area before more buyers could enter.
Gildea said COVID-19 made her place more emphasis on community contribution. As elderly people had difficulty standing in line, two additional access points were created for elderly and disabled people. The market was also opened for senior-only purchases half an hour earlier.
Based on her observations, Gildea said that farmers’ markets are no longer just for special occasions; They have proven to be the primary source of nutrition.
Historic Easton Market is changing a lot
This scenic and expansive waterfront on the Delaware River became home to the Easton Farmers’ Market during the coronavirus to allow social distancing. The new environment has attracted a new group of customers to the farmers market.
In Northampton County, Easton Farmers’ Market faced a particular challenge. Manager Megan McBride explained that downtown Easton Square has had some form of Easton Public Market since 1758, making it America’s oldest open-air market. The market’s closely placed stalls, clustered around a monument in the center of the square, made social distancing problematic this year.
The vendors have been separated and the wearing of masks and a “no touching” policy on products have been introduced. However, the public response to social media accused the market of contributing to the COVID-19 contagion. It quickly became clear that it was necessary to find another place.
The abandonment of the historical market was controversial. However, the market shifted to the unused scenic riverside of the city along a street next to a park, dulling the opposition. The new location is now called Easton Farmers’ Market and offers dedicated free parking on two nearby lots with easy market access. It also offers one-way customer traffic, bringing customers past vendors they have not seen before.
“Now nobody’s on the end of the line,” said McBride.
To ease the transition, McBride met with each of its 32 vendors for submission. The providers had to sign an agreement that laid down strict COVID-19 rules. In 2020, an average of 1,500 customers were in the market from Wednesday to Sunday every day. While this was only half the usual number, sales increased 25% as customers moved more products to the convenient parking lot.
The public reaction to the brutal police murder of George Floyd, a black man, in late May drew attention to many racial problems in the US and locally to the lack of racial diversity within the Easton market customer base. By partnering with the local NAACP chapter or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the market saw a dramatic increase in color customers and also attracted more color vendors and entertainers.
Easton Farmers’ Market will continue on the riverside in 2021. Its location has attracted many new customers, but Easton is still striving to reconnect the new location to its downtown stores that miss the pedestrian traffic from the old market.
Displacements at Center County’s Farmers Market for take out and delivery
Sabina Kerry is the manager of Center Markets, a collaboration that began in 2018 between several producer-only farmers’ markets in Center County, Pennsylvania. After some customers raised security concerns despite COVID-19 logs, Kerry began looking at online options. What has evolved resembles a CSA or community backed farming, but their system used online ordering for certain items from the vendors as well as a combination of customer pickups or deliveries to customers.
With the help of Local Line, a Canadian provider of sales and distribution software for farmers’ markets, Kerry organized a weekly order cycle system. Vendors list their stocks and customers make their selections online between Wednesday and Friday evenings. The sellers will be informed of the customer selection on Friday at 5 p.m. and will deliver their products on Saturday between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. At this hub location, the orders are then packed between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. for collection by the customer between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Center Markets Online also ships 20-25 orders per week for a $ 6 fee using a van purchased through a GoFundMe online campaign.
Starting from three participating vendors, the program has grown to 35 vendors who handle approximately 100 weekly orders, an average of $ 75 per order.
Customers value COVID-19 security, convenience, and access to fresh, local, custom food. Vendors value a reliable point of sale for their products, for which they are charged a commission of 15% plus a processing fee of USD 4 per order.
Kerry said Center Markets Online grossed $ 100,000 in its first four months of operation and plans to expand. One way to do this may be to serve SNAP (Food Stamps) receivers in the future.
The store manager also reported success in working with a local pantry to help with their deliveries.
For more information, please visit https://bloomfieldnow.org (click the Saturday Market link) and www.centremarkets.com.