Nothing screams “fall” quite like a farmers market. For many, this seasonal tradition means gathering fresh produce and warm bakery items from local vendors as the air takes on a chill and orange leaves fall from the trees. It means picking out the perfect pumpkin to display on your porch, or bright yellow butternut squash to roast with brown sugar, or cloud-soft loaf of bread to serve with a hearty soup. The farmers market is, if anything, a quintessential unifier for communities. But this year, for many, it looked different.
When the COVID-19 pandemic ripped through the U.S. in late March and the nation settled into a springtime quarantine, many hoped by summer or early fall, everything from business operations to schools, and universities to restaurants would return to normal.
But we all know that’s not what happened.
“There is really no area of our operations that COVID-19 hasn't impacted,” said Jill Groednek, assistant market manager of the Dane County Farmers Market in Wisconsin.
The Dane County Farmers Market primarily serves the area surrounding Madison, Wisconsin. Its downtown market, which runs outdoors around the State Capitol from June to late fall, attracts thousands every week. Because of its high traffic, Groednek said Wisconsin revoked their outdoor permit for the downtown market at the beginning of the pandemic, forcing them to adapt for the sake of their growers and consumers alike.
In March, Groenek said her team quickly pivoted from an indoor market to a pandemic-safe pick-up format, which ended up being a drive-thru model. Customers would place an order from their favorite vendors ahead of time, and then the vendors would place their order contact-free in their cars.
As spring turned to summer and the Dane County team fell smoothly into their drive-up rhythm, they started to expand, and soon even got permission to re-launch a more traditional — yet still socially distanced — outdoor walk-up market.
Groednek said throughout the transition, they tried to support their vendors as much as possible, which included posting vendor information on their website.
For Brad Wilson, a local farmer who’s sold herb and vegetable seedlings at the Dane County market for 25 years, the pandemic meant an opportunity to branch into new, online marketplaces.
“This year, I sold plants online using a SquareSpace website and Square for online transactions,” Wilson said. “I think this season forced me into selling online and using cards for payment, which is a good thing because there is a lot of potential to develop these techniques into ways to sell more product more efficiently.”
Wilson also sells at the nearby Baraboo County market, which he could continue to do as it reopened with social distancing measures in place. While Wilson said he didn’t make as much this summer as he might usually, it “wasn’t a bad summer.”
For other vendors, COVID meant focusing more on selling to grocery stores, rather than at a market. Pam Augustyn of Canopy Gardens — a small farm selling vegetables and herbs — said she doesn’t plan to return to the farmers market until it returns to normal operations. Augustyn said they tried out the drive-up format, decided it wasn’t quite right for their operation, and chose instead to focus on their efforts selling to grocery stores.
“We have adapted and are continuing to adapt with marketing, and we are now looking into packaging more of our items for selling at grocery stores versus the farm market,” Augustyn said. “What we plant and offer next year will be based on what we have adapted this year — we have been looking at alternate ways of packing the things we grow to be more accessible for grocery stores to sell.”
Like Wilson, Augustyn said her operation took in less money from the market this year compared to previous — as much as three times less profit than usual in her case. But they’ve also sold more at stores, so while it’s still a loss, Augustyn said it’s not as bad as it could have been if they hadn’t changed their delivery methods.
In light of their new marketing strategies, Augustyn said her team is considering not returning to the farmers market at all and instead just selling their produce to stores.
University of Wisconsin Extension specialist Kristen Krokowski, who works with the Wisconsin Farmers' Market Association said while shifting gears to accommodate growers and consumers during the pandemic has been challenging, it’s also taught their organization new skills.
The Wisconsin Farmers Market Association is made up of directors of farmers markets across the state. While they don’t interact directly with growers and consumers much, they provide resources to farmers market organizers, and in a pandemic like this, support farmers statewide.
“Our goal is to support the market managers and the boards and things like that, so that they can provide good markets for their communities and for their farmers,” Krokowski said.
Krokowski said the Dane County downtown market was the only one of their around 300 markets that didn’t return to some sort of in-person, socially distanced capacity. But she also said the pandemic could have impacted grower-consumer relationships because social distancing can make it harder for farmers and consumers to have meaningful conversations.
At a farmers market, Krokowski said, consumers can ask questions about where their food is coming from, and make a request if there’s a certain item they’d like to see, connecting communities with food systems. Plus, farmers markets offer more than just food — local entertainers and small businesses use them as a starting point.
“They're really important social structures for communities,” Krokowski said. “They're just really important to kind of reinforce that sense of community and that connectedness.”
If anything, Krokowski said the pandemic has helped people realize how important investing in local food systems are — especially back in March, when grocery stores experienced shortages nationwide.
“You can go into the grocery store and whole shelves are empty or (find out that) what produce you can get this week’s kind of spotty. And I think for the people who utilize the farmers market or CSAs or local food, there's some reassurance there,” Krokowski said. “Having diversified local agriculture helps with making sure that we can have products locally.”