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'There Was No Quit': Vt. Farmers Markets Learn To Adjust During COVID Summer

A man wearing a mask putting together a bouquet of flowers.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Jerry Smith, from Deer Ridge Farm, puts together a bouquet of flowers at the Brattleboro Farmers Market. Markets have adapted this year to incorporate safety precautions in response to the pandemic.

Vermont’s farmers markets had to make a lot of adjustments to operate safely during the pandemic. And as the 2020 harvest wraps up, markets are looking back at what worked, and what didn’t during a very challenging season.By this point, Hartland Farmers Market manager Brian Stroffolino has learned to recognize most of the cars of his regular customers.

And so as a blue Subaru wagon pulls up to his table, Stroffolino is ready to hand over three bags of local produce and meat that were all pre-ordered earlier this week.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, farmers markets were some of the first businesses that were forced to make changes.

Safety guidelines came late, and markets across Vermont had to scramble to figure out how they’d be able to safely operate.

More from VPR: NOFA-VT Asks Farmers Markets Get 'Essential' Designation, Hires Relief Milkers

A person in a cloth face mask handing paper bags into a car window
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Hartland Farmers Market manager Brian Stroffolino hands bags of produce through the window of a car during the market pickup. The Hartland market went to a pre-order system during the pandemic.

In Hartland, the market went to a pre-order system.

Stroffolino, who also runs Heartland Farm, says customers put in their order on the market website early in the week, and then swing by Friday afternoon to pickup their bags of locally-sourced food.

“This is kind of the safest way to do things,” he said during a recent market day while waiting for the next car. “There’s no monetary transaction. And it’s very convenient. It’s been quite successful."

It’s been so successful he says, that they may keep the preorder system even if life is back to normal next year.

Jennifer Waite dropped by the Hartland market to pick up her order of heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots.

She said she misses the face-to-face time with her local farmers, and the music and social aspects that make farmers markets so much more than just a place to pick up veggies.

But Waite added that during these times, when so much of our lives has been taken away, she’s thankful for what the market can provide.

“We have lost a lot of the social things that happen,” Waite said. “And I feel like in a way the year hasn’t happened, because we haven’t had Old Home Day. We haven’t had Easter egg hunt, you know any of the things that mark the passage of time. So having this still be here, and being able to support our local food and our local farmers is just awesome.”

"From the markets I've talked to and heard from, yeah, they're struggling. A lot of them have gone into their very meager savings to kind of make ends meet this summer.... I can't imagine any of them have not been at a loss this season." — Jennie Porter, NOFA-VT

Every farmers market in the state had to make some changes this year to meet state health guidelines. Some markets had to space out stands to help maintain social distance, and that meant fewer vendors to pay their dues, and lower sales.

Craft vendors and prepared food carts weren’t allowed to set up early in the year, leading to a further drop in revenue.

And so while markets have been able to operate during the pandemic, NOFA-VT Vermont market development manager Jennie Porter says it hasn’t been easy.

Paper bags on a table under a tent
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Hartland Farmers Market customers order and pay for their food early in the week and then pick it up Friday. The market manager says the system is safe and efficient, and the market may even keep it next summer.

“From the markets I’ve talked to and heard from, yeah, they’re struggling,” Porter said. “A lot of them have gone into their very meager savings to kind of make ends meet this summer, and are worried about going into next season without savings, especially because this pandemic doesn’t seem to be going away. I can’t imagine any of them have not been at a loss this season.”

More from Brave Little State: In A Food Shortage, Could Vermont Farms Feed The Whole State?

In Brattleboro, the market has about half of the vendors they had last year due to COVID restrictions, and farmers deciding they didn’t want to risk their own health by setting up this year

Market revenue is down about 60%.

Brattleboro Farmers Market manager Meghan Houlihan says it’s been a long season of making the best of a tough situation.

“We were required to have a 12-foot gap between booths, so figuring out spacing, figuring out a one-way flow of traffic,” she said. “And so it took us a while to figure out that we can reverse the booths and have people walk around the driveway in one direction. And figuring out parking: Do we allow people to park down here? You know, how is that all going to work.”

"You don't have a choice of stopping, pushing the pause button, at least not on our farm... We had all of this stuff that had to be dealt with, just like all of these vendors do, and because this market is a reflection of the Brattleboro community, there was no quit here." — Read Miller, Dwight Miller Orchards

Read Miller helps run Dwight Miller Orchards, and his father was one of the founders of the Brattleboro market. Miller was here selling produce when the market first opened 45 years ago.

The pandemic hit in early spring, just when farmers were starting the growing season, and Miller said vendors here met a couple a times a week to figure out a way to make sure the market could open this year.

“You don’t have a choice of stopping, pushing the pause button, at least not on our farm,” Miller said. “We do a lot of different things at the orchard and some of our things hit zero. We do a lot of restaurant trade in the Boston area, that hit zero. And it was never an option just to go away and just to wait it out. We had all of this stuff that had to be dealt with, just like all of these vendors do, and because this market is a reflection of the Brattleboro community, there was no quit here.”

The Saturday Brattleboro Farmers’ Market is usually a crowded, bustling scene with music, kids playing in the sandbox and people eating food at shared picnic tables.

All of that is off the table in the age of COVID, and in the 2020 version, masked shoppers walk in one direction. No one’s allowed to eat, and some of the vendors have their stands roped off to prevent anyone from touching the products.

People go past signs directing how to shop in a pandemic-safe way at the farmers market
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
The one-way traffic trickles into the Brattleboro Farmers Market on a recent Saturday.

Rebecca Greene-Cramer grew up in Brattleboro and says she’s been coming to the market every summer for most of her life.

This is definitely not the market she knows and loves, she said, but without all these precautions, she’d be less likely to walk around here on Saturday mornings.

“I don’t see it as an impediment. I think it’s the safety precautions that we have to be taking right now,” Greene-Cramer said. “And it’s a thing we have to adapt to, and we all are doing it. And that allows everyone to engage in this safely. It’s a little strange. We’d all like to not be doing it, but it doesn’t bother me at all.”

As the summer season winds up, a lot of questions remain about whether winter markets will be able to open.

The indoor winter markets are much tougher to run while maintaining health guidelines, and the Burlington market has already announced that it won’t open at UVM’s Davis Center this year.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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