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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Brian Nicholson steers Red Jacket Orchards out of the orchard and toward juice

Brian Nicholson of Canandaigua is the President of Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva.
Brian Nicholson of Canandaigua is the President of Red Jacket Orchards in Geneva. (Kate Melton)

The day Red Jacket Orchards turned on the juice production line at its new plant in 2010, Brian Nicholson had a realization.

What began as a fruit farm and roadside produce stand two generations earlier had already expanded to shipping fruit and juice to much of the East Coast. Not to mention that Red Jacket Orchards had blanketed the New York City area and its Greenmarkets so thoroughly with its apples, apricots and juice that Nicholson could be recognized on Manhattan streets by the logo on his company shirt.

But the juice plant represented a significant shift for the fruit company.

“The day we turned this plant on, we realized we were in the beverage business,” Nicholson said in his office above the production line in the Geneva plant.

Indeed, under Nicholson’s direction, Red Jacket Orchards has been moving away from the orchard part of the business and toward juice. About 80 percent of revenues now come from bottling juice, Nicholson said. Over the last few years, Red Jacket has reduced its 500 acres of orchards by half, by cutting down old apple trees and selling off land. It also pulled out of the 50 Greenmarkets in New York City where it had been a mainstay for more than two decades.

At the same time, the company has grown seven-fold since 2000, Nicholson said, employing as many as 200 people during peak harvest season. His job now is to prepare the company for another growth spurt, planning to double business in the next five to 10 years.

Red Jacket Orchards expects it will make an announcement soon with Wegmans about deepening the two companies’ relationship. The impact on Red Jacket will be significant, Nicholson suggested.

Though Red Jacket is family owned — Brian Nicholson’s twin brother, Mark, and father Joe Nicholson Jr., are the other major owners — observers give much of the credit for the business to Brian’s leadership.

“He’s been very purposeful about kind of raising the bar on how we operate and go to market,” Mark Nicholson said. Brian is “really embracing trying to be a world class operation, in both how we manage the business and bring our people along.”

“He has a lot of personal qualities that contribute to his being a really great leader. He’s grown up with this, he smells it, he feels it. It’s in his bones,” said John Engels, founder and president of Leadership Coaching in Rochester. “I would say he was the right person at the right time to take this business.”

Nicholson couldn’t have felt farther from being the right person in 1996 when, not long out of college, he started working for Red Jacket Orchards by establishing wholesale accounts in New York City.

“I ran for six months until I realized I couldn’t work with my dad, even five hours away,” Nicholson said. New customers would order produce that Brian Nicholson would send the orders to his father fill in Geneva. When the order arrived, it often would be different, and the customer would reject it.  When Brian would call Joe for an explanation, the older Nicholson would tell his son that he had to sell what the farm was growing at that time.

The younger Nicholson’s time was productive nevertheless as he created relationships with chefs, restaurants and retail customers including Zabar’s delicatessen and Balducci’s.

“It really helped put us on the map,” Brian Nicholson said.  “Most of these customers are still with us.”

His brothers also helped establish significant parts of the business, with Mark developing juice blends that elevated the company above simple cider production. Older brother Joseph J. Nicholson III, who now works for the Veteran’s Administration in Canandaigua, built Red Jacket’s relationship with the network of farm markets in New York while he was still a college student in Manhattan.

The Nicholsons also have a younger sister, Amy Phillips, who runs a fine furniture business and event site in Geneva.

As Red Jacket’s fresh fruit and the first unique juice product — a cider made solely from Fuji apples — became more popular in New York City, Nicholson said customers at the farm markets started asking for deliveries. Red Jacket went along, finding opportunities to expand.

“If there’s anything Red Jacket has been good at, it’s not saying no,” he said.

But Brian Nicholson said no to the family business for a while. He lived in New York City and the surrounding area for several years as he worked as the sales representative for a Dutch flower bulb company, traveling around New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania to straighten out bulb displays in stores like Walmart and Agway.

“That was a really neat job. My first job was downloading data from Walmart’s data interchange,” Nicholson said.

“I would go to Agway and see how business was done for the last 50 years. And then I’d go to Walmart and see how business would be done for the next 50 years.”

He also worked in New York City’s advertising and marketing industry, working on accounts for Proctor and Gamble that included the launch of Bounty paper napkins. It was a great time to live and work in New York, Nicholson said, but when he and his wife decided to start thinking about raising a family, they decided to move back to the Finger Lakes in 2000.

Nicholson came without a job, but his father had one in mind at Red Jacket.

“My father smelled opportunity and put on the full-court press,” Nicholson said with a laugh.

Joe Nicholson would run the farming operation, Mark would handle fresh fruit accounts, and Brian would run all the other parts of Red Jacket Orchards.

“Dad’s a prolific grower,” Brian Nicholson said of his 76-year-old father. “We both enjoy different aspects of the business. My dad in his heart of hearts is a grower and a developer of products. I love the organization side, the business management and marketing side.” He confesses that he’s also developed more patience, which has helped.

“His challenge early on was probably me learning patience,” Nicholson said.

In recent years, Joe Nicholson had stepped back as an active participant in the business, Brian Nicholson said, but with Mark’s departure and other restructuring, Joe will be overseeing the business’s now smaller farming footprint again. Brian has taken on some of Mark’s old work, too.

Red Jacket still grows apples, which form the base of its juice blends and remains known as one of the largest producers of fresh apricots in the East. But much of its juice comes from fruit grown by others now.

One exception is that Red Jacket is growing varieties of apples favored for production of hard cider and has a contract to supply the Albany area’s Angry Orchard. It also supplies smaller amounts of juice for smaller cideries. Nicholson said Red Jacket is happy to grow apples and supply juice for that growing industry, but has no plans to get into the making of hard cider itself.

Since 2000, Red Jacket Orchards has been through multiple growth stages, he said, growing at a rate of 10-25 percent in sales each year. Though the juice plant has been operating for nine years, it’s still at only 50 percent capacity, Nicholson said, because of some streamlining of operations.

Red Jacket’s continuing process of streamlining and recent shift in direction has been driven in part by the increasingly unpredictable nature of agriculture, Nicholson said. Three of the last five harvests have been severely diminished by weather — drought and unusual cold snaps. Crop insurance helped, but couldn’t cover all the losses, he said.

Moving toward juice production and away from raising fruit helps the company manage those kinds of risks better.

“That struggle to always keep growing and do the best products,” Nicholson said. “The food industry is challenging and fascinating. I’m proud of how we’ve navigated.”

“This reorganization and ability to now put the focus on the beverage is really in line with where (Brian’s areas of) expertise are,” his twin brother said.

Engels said leading a company is easy when things are going well; good leaders manage through tougher times.

“I’ve got to believe his people skills have been a key factor in the success of that business,” Engels said.

But both Engels and Mark Nicholson note Brian Nicholson’s devotion to life balance and improving his business skills. He has been active in local leadership development groups, and makes a special effort to make time for family and activities that re-energize him, such as running and sailing.

And while Nicholson is taking on more responsibility at the family company now, he plans to eventually find someone to run more of the day-to-day operations so he can be more of an owner than an operator.

“I am not the type of person who has to have his finger on the switch,” he said.

True to his pedigree, he still prefers the bigger picture and working with customers.

“I really love solving problems. I love solving customer’s problems,” Nicholson said. “Nothing’s better than standing in front of customer and pouring them a juice and seeing their positive reaction.”

[email protected]/ (585) 363-7275


Brian Nicholson

Title: President and CEO, Red Jacket Orchards

Age: 47

Residence: Canandaigua

Family: Wife Kirstin; 14-year-old twins Emily and Colin, 12-year-old daughter, Anna.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing, 1994, Cornell University.

Activities: running, sailing, competing in triathlons

Quote: “I really love solving problems. I love solving customer’s problems. … Nothing’s better than standing in front of customer and pouring them a juice and seeing their positive reaction.”