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Farmers markets adapt to social distancing restrictions

Farmers markets adapt to social distancing restrictions

RICHMOND—Farmers markets are open for business, but they’ve had to adapt to a new reality created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Social distancing regulations have put a strain on traditional farmers markets—a key source of income for some farmers and a way for farmers and consumers to connect. Mitigation measures significantly limit farmers’ ability to sell their food products in person, and markets and producers are conceiving new ways to safely sell locally grown goods.

“While some markets have chosen to close during this time, others have embraced preorder, drive-thru and pick-up options for their customers,” said Kim Hutchinson, executive director of the Virginia Farmers Market Association.

Drive-thru markets allow patrons to place orders in advance, either online or by calling a vendor directly. On market days, vendors load goods directly into customers’ cars or pass them through their windows, ensuring minimal contact. Vendors wear gloves and masks, food is bagged, and tables are constantly wiped down.

Although this model provides a socially distant option to crowded supermarkets, it also poses logistical challenges. Farmers markets typically are held in parking lots, where space is limited. To allow space between vendors and room for drivers to navigate, some markets are rotating which vendors are present on certain days, and staggering pickup times to counter traffic jams and long lines.

Markets also are moving online. E-commerce platforms like Lulus Local Food allow farmers to sell through online farmers markets and food hubs. Farmers can have one list of inventory shared with multiple markets to expand their reach, and consumers pay online before picking up their orders at designated locations.

And it’s taking off. “Sales at some online markets have doubled what they normally are this time of year,” said Molly Harris, project manager for the Virginia Foundation for Agriculture, Innovation and Rural Sustainability and operator of Lulus Local Food. “A lot more people are now shopping online for food in order to practice social distancing, but they’re also realizing the convenience of shopping this way.” VA FAIRS is an affiliate of Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

Harris helped Stasia Greenewalt, director of grower services for Local Food Hub in Charlottesville, successfully transition her market online within 24 hours. Since then, she’s seen sales double.

“Seeing farmers pivot so quickly in order to save their business and feed people has been inspiring,” Greenewalt said. “The landscape changes day to day, and as we quickly throw together drive-thru farmers markets, navigating new online platforms, locations … I am in awe of the resilience of these growers.”

When circumstances return to normal, Harris anticipates online sales and pickups will continue as they offer additional ways for farmers to get their products directly to consumers.

Media: Contact Harris at 804-290-1713.