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Farmers markets adopt new methods during pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and New York State issued its first guidelines on social distancing, farmers markets were among the many businesses that closed down.

A worker connected to Flour City Bread moves to close a car trunk after depositing a box of prepaid locally produced groceries. (RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter)
A worker connected to Flour City Bread moves to close a car trunk after depositing a box of prepaid locally produced groceries. (RBJ Photo by Diana Louise Carter)

The seasonal markets that haven’t opened yet for the year, meanwhile, have been contemplating how to go forward and whether to open on schedule. A number of markets have posted lists of participating farms on their webpages or social media sites so customers could make arrangements to buy food directly from the producers.

The Rochester City Public Market continued to operate even as other city departments and series were closed down, taking care to space people and booths out, offer more ventilation for its indoor vendors and add more regular cleaning of high-touch surfaces.

After that initial reaction, New York’s Empire State Development has ruled that farmers markets and farm stands are essential businesses after all, so they may continue to operate with some restrictions.

New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets followed up with guidelines for operating safely. They include holding produce back so people can’t touch it, bagging food as much as possible, curtailing any sales of non-food items except for soap, and eliminating any music or other forms of entertainment that might cause people to hang around the market longer than they need to complete their shopping.

“Right now it’s not a social gathering as some may know it to be,” said Brian Howell, owner of Howell Farm on Saltonstall Street in Canandaigua and the market manager for the Canandaigua Farmers Market.

Howell said that there are regular customers who tend to make the market their Saturday morning gathering, but that’s highly discouraged right now.

The Canandaigua market, which operates alternating Saturdays in the winter, closed two weeks ago, but expects to open again this Saturday after adopting new social distancing methods— spacing out vendors, providing hand sanitizer and other precautions such as removing table cloths so surfaces can be wiped down regularly.

“It’s going to be an evolving plan all year to move forward in a safe manner,” Howell said.

The participating producers—about 10 in the winter and up to 35 in the warmer months—expect to be move to their summer location on Mill Street in early June, when they’ll be open every Saturday again. Howell said they may take additional measures at that location, as crowds might be larger.

The Brighton Farmers Market wasn’t quite so quick to get up and running again and isn’t ready to commit to its usual summer opening on Mother’s Day—May 10 this year. The town closed its indoor winter market located in the Brookside School when restrictions on gatherings went into effect in March.

“Our winter market is bigger than most communities’ summer markets,” said town supervisor Bill Moehle.

But its setting, in the gym of a former elementary school, was impossible to continue using with new social distancing guidelines. The building is also closed for now.

Moehle said the indoor setting will not reopen before the market switches to its summer location, date still to be decided, in the parking lot of Brighton High School.

“We certainly know farmers markets are an important part of the food network for people,” Moehle said.

With approximately 50 vendors at its outdoor location, the Brighton market is the second-largest in the county.

The market will follow the state’s new guidelines, Moehle said, adding, “Because we’re so big and so popular we have to go a step beyond to protect the vendors’ safety and the public’s safety.”

The market manager and market committee, along with town officials, are pondering some sweeping changes that are taking a while to coordinate.

Brighton is considering limiting attendees by age and number. Normally operating from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Sundays, the town may save the first hour for people over 60 years old, and then assign people to other hours based on the first letter of their last names.

The market may not take cash anymore and customers may just come to pick up food they’ve already selected and paid for.

“Food wouldn’t be out on display (allowing people to) touch them the way they can now,” Moehle said. “We don’t anticipate money changing hands on the spot. It’s really important that at least under current conditions that customers pre-pay for pre-ordered items.”

The market has used a popular system allowing people to use their SNAP benefit card or a credit card to obtain tokens they can spend like cash at the market, but the token system will probably be abandoned during the health crisis.

“We will be doing things a little different for SNAP customers,” Moehle said. “We very much want to make sure they continue to be included.”

Figuring out how to make these systems work for a market overseen by one manager and her committee is what’s taking time and causing uncertainty in the summer market’s opening date, Moehle said. While Brighton police stop by as part of their community engagement efforts, they won’t be enforcing the alphabetical attendance rules, Moehle said.

Both Canandaigua and Brighton are depending on their extensive emails lists of customers to help educate them about changes in procedures.

Even those procedures may not be sufficient for people who are especially concerned about safeguarding their health, but also want to continue to consume local foods and support local producers. A group of vendors at the Rochester City Public Market, including some whose wholesale customers have dwindled with the shuttering of restaurants, is meeting that niche market with a no-touch farm market option.

Flour City Bread Co. is coordinating a “Friday grocery store” option in which customers order products online, choosing from Flour City’s baked goods, produce from Fisher Hill Farm, cider from Red Jacket Orchards, meats from Seven Bridges Farm and Swan’s Market, milk from Pittsford Farms Dairy and other products.

Guests order and pay online, then drive to the market on Fridays between __ 1 p.m. They text a number to provide a description of their car and their order numbers as they wait in line. Masked and gloved workers locate the corresponding box of goods and bring it to the waiting cars, depositing them in trunks without ever coming close to the driver inside. The group also offers home delivery.

Last Friday, the second week of operation, there appeared to be about 100 orders stacked up.

“We started it to try to get a complete grocery package available for people to come and pick up without interacting with a lot of other people. That was our goal,” Keith Myers, owner Flour City Bread, said in a promotional video about the service. “The response has been overwhelming.”

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