Jars of honey glowed in the sun. Sweet cherries – the prized survivors of a spring freeze – peeked from small paper bags. Frills of red and green leaf lettuce looked festive in their wooden crates. And Palisade Farmers Market patrons came in droves to the social and retail heart of this small-town for the first farmers market of the season on Sunday.
In a community known for events that feature downhome fun, marketgoers were undeterred by the fencing and the roped-off, one-way corridors; the signs recommending masks and distancing; the ubiquitous hand-sanitizer dispensers; and the unfamiliarity of rules enforcers in orange T-shirts.
Buoyed by blue skies and zippy jazz playing over a loudspeaker, around 1,600 attendees filled their baskets and bags over a four-hour period.
What these happy shoppers couldn’t see behind this rite of summer was the lobbying and the months of planning that took place at state, county and community levels to be able to allow farmers markets across Colorado to open during a pandemic. To make that happen, markets had to shape-shift to become more like grocery shopping destinations and a little less like social outings.
If the markets hadn’t adapted, they could have been lumped in with special events, like concerts and festivals, rather than grouped with essential-service businesses like grocery stores, Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg said.
“We can still have connection and a sense of community at the markets,” Greenberg explained. “But we have to just be doing it in a different way.”
The farmers markets did not need to be saved simply as a popular amenity for locavores. They represent a crucial revenue source for local farmers like the one sporting a T-shirt Sunday that proclaimed “I Farm, You Eat.”
Last year, Boulder County Farmers Markets alone had $4.25 million in sales of fruits, vegetables, meat, flowers and plants and $8 million in sales of packaged and prepared foods, according to executive director Brian Coppom. Farmers who had already been slammed by the loss of revenue when the novel coronavirus shut down in-house dining at restaurants, would have been decimated if they couldn’t get their products to consumers via the popular open-air markets this summer.
From Durango to Steamboat Springs, from Greeley to Salida, and from Boulder to Denver Union Station, the 100 farmers markets in Colorado are now tiptoeing into a season of produce and pandemic with the same hope and trepidation — and with a very mixed bushel of rules to keep vendors and shoppers safe.
Overall, farmers markets aficionados can no longer just load up the dogs, the kids and grandma and show up expecting to taste the cherries, to feel the ripeness of peaches, or to riffle through bundles of kale. They can’t tap their toes in front of a live band or hang out for a picnic lunch.
In areas such as Mesa County, where virus numbers have remained low since COVID-19 made an appearance in March, rules are noticeably laxer. In locations in the Denver metro area, where thousands cram into a corridor of booths on market days, strict reservation-only shopping has become a pandemic necessity.
Rosalind May, executive director of the Colorado Farmers Market Association, said she hopes that farmers market visitors will focus on what is available and not so much on what is missing from past years. She suggests a new point of view about the markets.
Look at it as “this is where you go to do your grocery shopping,” she advised. Go with a list in hand and purchase all the produce, meats, dairy products, grains and other local foods possible.
Farmers markets, like all other retail businesses in pandemic times, are covered by the state’s Safer at Home and in the Vast Great Outdoors rules for public safety, specifically by Public Health Order 20-28, Appendix A. The markets also operate under detailed guidance from the Colorado Farmers Market Association which put together a nine-page “toolkit’ of recommendations this spring.
Each county must stay within the state’s rules for safe food handling and social distancing. But counties also have the option of tweaking the association recommendations in a way that suits their unique market spaces and recognizes the levels of COVID-19 in their communities.
Michelle Gossage, who directs the Palisade Sunday Farmers Market, said, with the recommendations as a starting point, she and other market directors in Mesa County have been meeting for months with county health officials to devise ways to safely hold the markets that each present unique challenges.
“There has been a lot of creative thinking going on,” she said.
Part of the creativity is centered on virtual farmers markets. From Palisade to Boulder County, many markets are posting market offerings online so that shoppers who don’t feel comfortable coming into a market space can order their produce and products and pick it up. That is in addition to farmers offering CSA boxes that regularly deliver a mixed bag of whatever produce and meats and dairy products are in season.
The markets under the purview of Boulder County Farmers Markets began a BCFM2Go program in early April to get local products to consumers sequestered by Safer at Home rules. That organization also compiled a Find Your Farmer list for consumers who want to avoid the markets, which have reopened in Boulder, Denver and Longmont.
Palisade plans to begin virtual farmers market shopping next week so immune-compromised or older shoppers can pick out their produce online and pick it up near the market each Sunday.
May said these virtual farmers market offerings will be overseen by individual markets because Colorado doesn’t have the capacity now to do a statewide virtual marketplace for its growers like Florida does with its Florida Farm to You listings. Maybe someday, she said.
With all the pandemic-era rules, May said she has already heard feedback statewide that many visitors to the markets prefer to be there and are “just glad to be out.”
May said her association hasn’t received much grumbling from shoppers who can’t sample a nibble of the fresh-baked zucchini bread or snag the prize bunch of beets from the bottom of a pile.
She said the politics behind mask wearing might turn out to be the most problematic thing in the corridors of plums, turnips and fresh eggs. Some marketgoers are happy to see masks as a protective measure and others view them as unnecessary government overreach.
Besides masks, marketgoers can expect common changes from market to market. There is wider spacing between booths. That means fewer vendors. For example, Palisade had 30 vendors Sunday – less than half of last year’s number.
One-way lanes are the norm to cut down on face-to-face encounters. Some vendors have tables or other barriers in front of produce and products to keep shoppers at a distance. Cooking demonstrations and live music – things that tempt people to bunch up and linger – won’t happen for now.
Neither will sampling.
Some of the strictest measures will be at the largest markets. Boulder, Longmont and Denver offer reservations to get into the markets, though drop-in shoppers are welcome, too.
Visitors receive maps by text or email so they will know where to line up for their no-lingering turns through the markets.
At the other end of the spectrum, the early season Sunday market in Crested Butte was relaxed. Some marks on the pavement denoted proper social-distancing. The booths were spread out rather than side-by-side.
And sneeze guards were up in front of bread loaves and pastries that used to be laid out for pawing. Still, patrons wandered and they stopped to socialize. Other than being smaller than usual and having everyone in masks, an early Crested Butte market didn’t feel that different than pre-pandemic markets.
When Grand Junction’s long-running downtown market opens next week, it is expected to lose its culinary carnival atmosphere. That market – one of the oldest in the state – had drawn people to socialize, and in some cases, to ignore the produce booths that were lost in the crush of business and craft booths, street performances, dog set-tos, and crowded restaurant patios.
It will be smaller, quieter and more restrictive.
May said feedback so far has given her optimism that the markets across the state will do well. One market in Paonia sold out on its first day in early May. Others are reporting sales that are on par or less than previous years, but the expectation is that sales will pick up as the growing season gets in full swing.
“It’s certainly challenging to open with adaptations for COVID,” May admitted.
Gossage said vendors at Palisade’s first day were pleasantly surprised to see such a crowd. They didn’t know what to expect when they set up their shade tents and carted in their coolers of products.
“This is such a great way to be outside and be a part of the community,” said a heartened Carrie Litz as she doled out scones, cookies and cinnamon rolls to eager buyers at her Be Sweet Bakeshop booth.
Across the orange cones and ropes, at the Ghost Rock Farm booth, cheese and butter makers Halsey Swetzoff and Tess Peterson waited for business to begin in a booth that was often known to sell out in pre-pandemic times. They looked at each other thoughtfully over their masks before responding to a question about how they thought this year was going to go.
“I feel like there has been a boost in buying your food close to home,” Swetzoffs said. “I think after a couple of markets people are going to get the hang of this. I am hopeful for a good year.”
FARMERS MARKET TIPS
Rosalind May, executive director of the Colorado Farmers Market Association, has a few tips for pandemic-era farmers market participants so they will have the best, hassle-free experiences:
- Do your research and check individual market websites so you know what to expect at specific markets. Hours, locations and rules may change as the season goes on.
- Vendors should clearly articulate expectations for their customers with signs and online postings.
- Shoppers should not go assuming that everything – or much of anything – will be the same as it was before the pandemic.
- Go with a list in hand of what you would like to buy, much as you would at the grocery store, so you can move through a market quicker.
- Wear a mask.
- Leave the kids and dogs at home.
- Practice your pointing. You will have to do more of that to get what you want.
- Be prepared to use a card, rather than cash. That includes SNAP cards for the state’s food stamp program.
- Consider ordering online for pickup if you aren’t comfortable going into a market space.
- Be appreciative of your local growers. Without engaging in too much chit-chat, let them know you support them.
CORRECTION: This story was updated June 18, 2020, at 5:25 to correct farmers market sales figures. Last year, Boulder County Farmers Markets alone had $4.25 million in sales of fruits, vegetables, meat, flowers and plants and $8 million in sales of packaged and prepared foods.