A recent state government dictate confirmed what enthusiasts have known all along, and that’s that farmers markets are essential grocery providers.
That role has only been emphasized during the coronavirus outbreak.
“Having a strong and resilient local food system has always been important, and now I think people are starting to understand that in a more concrete way,” said Emily Lund of Neighborhood Roots, the nonprofit that produces the Fulton Farmers Market, Kingfield Farmers Market and Nokomis Farmers Market in Minneapolis. “When we can shorten the supply chain from farm to plate, we can be resilient and not as vulnerable to global breakdowns in our supply system.”
During the height of the growing season, Minnesotans are served by several hundred farmers markets. This year, consumers will find the farmers market experience to be altered due to social distancing guidelines.
Expect to encounter clearly marked entrances and exits. Many have instituted one-way traffic patterns, and some are limiting the number of shoppers allowed into the market at any given time.
Vendors are spaced much farther apart than in the past, and barriers between shoppers and workers — extra tables, sheets of plexiglass — are a common sight. Hand-washing stations abound, and many markets are asking vendors and shoppers to wear masks. Arts and crafts vendors, considered nonessential, are not present.
Many farmers market vendors have created online preordering formats (with farmers markets using their websites to link shoppers to vendors), and market stands have become less about browsing and more about picking up prepackaged purchases. Markets are also encouraging vendors to embrace cashless payment systems.
Along with a change in appearance, markets are also feeling different.
Programming — music, storytelling, cooking demonstrations — has been canceled. Vendors are also prohibited from offering samples of their wares. Sales of consume-on-the-premises foods have been suspended, but that hasn’t prevented vendors from pivoting to new opportunities.
Chef Shack co-owners Lisa Carlson and Carrie Summer are using their Mill City Farmers Market trailer to sell penne with Bolognese, Thai green curry with basmati rice, calzones and other prepackaged, heat-and-serve items.
“I think people are getting really tired of their own cooking,” said Carlson with a laugh.
In other words, the socializing and entertainment aspects of farmers markets have been placed on hold. In 2020, farmers markets are, by necessity, strictly transactional.
“We’re turning the farmers market paradigm on its head,” said Kirsten Bansen Weigle of the Maple Grove Farmers Market. “We used to think a really successful day was when the market was packed, and people were connecting and enjoying the communal feel. Now, we’re going to be leaning really hard into our role as a food provider. We’re an outdoor grocery store, not a social gathering spot.”
All this change didn’t happen haphazardly. Farmers market staffers have been sharing ideas on a local, statewide and national basis.
“We’ve been on calls once a week with other farmers markets across Minnesota,” said Keeya Allen of the Midtown Farmers Market in Minneapolis. “We’ve been sharing information and creating clear guidelines so we have a united front of universal information for customers and vendors. Our priority is that our customers have access to great food.”
There’s clearly a demand. Eight hundred shoppers patronized the opening day of the Mill City Farmers Market on May 2, in an orderly fashion.
“We are very encouraged,” said the market’s founder, Brenda Langton. “And with asparagus, and greens, and green onions and rhubarb on the way, next week will be even better.”