Rather than the typical lot packed with mingling, chatting shoppers and farmers, consumers (in limited numbers) will be directed on a one-way path through vendors spaced six-feet apart, following strict social distancing guidelines. Tables will be used to space patrons from producers with trays to pass money and goods. Vendors will no longer showcase their products; instead, they’ll keep them sealed in vehicles, packaging per customer. Preorders will be encouraged and delivered through a curbside, contactless drive-thru.
“We want to minimize the amount of decisions a person has to make,” says Christina Howell, executive director for the Bloomfield Development Corporation (BDC). “When you’re in a market, you can look over and say, ‘Oh! I want to go over there!’ But then suddenly, you’re walking backwards. How do we absolutely minimize the variables in people’s movement?”
The Bloomfield Saturday Market is one of the many city markets adopting strict guidelines in response to the coronavirus outbreak. There’s no question, with overcrowded supermarkets and empty shelves, whether or not farmers markets are essential, but with COVID-19 rattling the city’s food industry, their future has remained uncertain. With this in mind, market organizers have modified operations in order to provide safe, accessible markets for their neighbors.
Sara Draper-Zivetz, organizer of Lawrenceville Farmers Market, says they’re stepping up efforts to make sure members of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will be able to use their benefits. Howell says that the BDC is working with Just Harvest to create a safe system for SNAP users with receipts instead of chips. Both Bloomfield and Lawrenceville are allowing cash payments, though it's discouraged.
For those concerned about long lines and contact risks, there will be online platforms. Abi Gildea, organizer for the Bloomfield Saturday Market, describes their end goal as an “Etsy for farmers.” Gildea is hoping to host all vendors and their goods on an e-commerce platform. Draper-Zivetz says the Lawrenceville website may be as simple as aggregating vendors' independent sites into one.
Lawrenceville and Bloomfield are ahead of many markets in Allegheny County; few have reached the point of guidelines and have postponed their opening dates. The City of Pittsburgh has pushed back their five markets to early June, and markets in Ross Township are waiting for the go-ahead. The Robinson Farmers Market at Holy Trinity has recently decided to open on May 18 and in Bellevue, organizers are trying to gauge what methods will be successful, unsure if they’ll be open by early June.
“[Organizers] pushing back the markets at the beginning of the season hurts in an interesting way,” says Chris Brittenburg, co-owner of Who Cooks For You Farm in New Bethlehem which is preparing to sell at local farm stands, including the Bloomfield Saturday Market. “We haven’t been making money for a long time, and we spent a huge amount of money in preparation throughout the winter. The early markets are really important.”
Finances are a concern from both sides. Draper-Zivetz says they are preparing to take a loss this year; Gildea has launched an online fundraiser to help with extra expenses, including hazard pay for their employees. With extra hands needed at booths to vend safely, website costs, and additional boxing and bagging of produce, farmers can expect a higher price tag on the season.
Higher expenses paired with added market regulations are making some vendors question their involvement in this year’s markets. They fear the loss of community as a draw for consumers, and as Marcella Ogrodnik, owner of Salvadoran eatery Café Agnes, puts it, the “impulse buy” that accounts for many sales.
“One of the big draws of these markets is the prepared foods,” says Jake Kristophel, co-owner of Fallen Aspen Farm. “People come there, they all meet up, they eat, they hang out with friends, they drink coffee. I think you just lose a big piece of what the farmers market is with that.” Kristophel typically attributes 70% of his sales to farmers markets.
Todd Wilson, founder of Tiny Seed Farm, feels similarly. “For me, markets are a culmination of our work. We get there and we get to experience the gratitude of the customer. It’s an illustration of the reason why we’re doing what we’re doing. So, the new format, it’s not as viscerally appealing as a producer.” Both Wilson and Kristophel, in light of the pandemic, have launched successful e-commerce stores.
Brittenburg and his partner, Aeros Lillstrom, however, have faith in the market season despite uncertainties. Brittenburg notes that Pittsburghers are currently “bottlenecked” to find sources of local produce. With limited access, they’re hoping sales spike.
“We are going to plant a lot, and we’re hoping to sell it all. We’re hoping it’s going to be a great year because of this online thing. In terms of fields, we’re loading them with vegetables,” says Brittenburg. “Pittsburghers can absolutely rely on getting vegetables.”
Bloomfield Saturday Market. 5050 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. bloomfieldnow.org; Lawrenceville Farmers Market. 276 39th St., Lawrenceville. lunited.org; Who Cooks For You Farm. 383 Mill Seat Run, New Bethlehem. whocooksforyoufarm.com; Fallen Aspen Farm. 2276 Georgetown Road, Volant. fallenaspenfarm.com; Tiny Seed Farm. 4312 Middle Road, Allison Park. tinyseedfarmpgh.com