Everything You Need to Know About Your Local Farmers Markets and CSAs During the Coronavirus
With Easter (such as it was) and more than half of April behind us, it’s now officially officially spring. Normally, that would mean farmers markets. This is the time that most seasonal farmers markets would be opening up across the country. Of course, you don’t need us to tell you that things aren’t normal. Right now, nothing is normal — or at least, there’s a new normal for the time being. We wear masks while grocery shopping. Some stores have one-way aisles. And it can be pretty darn impossible to find a single can of black beans — let alone our favorite brand.
What does this all mean for the farmers, farmers markets, and CSAs (which would usually be taking new members right now)? Crops are still growing and they should, ideally, go somewhere they can be used. How are farmers adapting? What do shoppers need to know? Curious, we reached out to farmers and market organizers in various states to find out what this season (and the future) looks like for them. We also got plenty of great tips to help you shop safely and load up on tons of fresh produce.
How Farmers Markets Are Changing This Spring
The good news is that many markets across the country are getting creative in order to provide food to customers (and a vehicle for farmers to earn their incomes). We called a smattering of different markets to see what’s changed. Yes, some were closed either for the foreseeable future or until they could figure out how to enforce social distancing guidelines. Plenty were open, though — just with new rules and regulations. You’ll want to check to see if your local farmers market is still in operation (most markets have posted updates on social media or on their websites to include operating status, as well as any guidelines customers need to know).
Here are a few common things we found and what you should expect.
- Your favorite vendor may be missing. Like the rest of the population, it’s a personal choice (and sometimes medical mandate) to stay at home. That means your goat cheese supplier might decide to avoid large crowds at the market for the next couple of weeks (months?). If that’s the case, and you remember the vendor’s name, try to find them online or on social media to see if there’s a way you can still buy from them or support them. Again, suppliers likely have a surplus of supplies and just need a way to get it to consumers.
- You’ll likely see a lot more space between vendors. As growing season kicks into gear, farmers markets booths can be packed in like sardines. But these days, market organizers are spacing vendors further apart, sometimes placing as many as two or three “booth-width” distances between sellers. Do your part and respect everyone’s space — don’t crowd around vendors, and be sure to maintain a responsible berth when standing in line.
- You may see abbreviated or designated hours. Lots of grocery stores have specific shopping times for elderly or at-risk populations. Your local greenmarket may have implemented similar rules. Or maybe your market is now open for just a few hours versus all day on Saturday. Again, check the market’s website, blog, or give the organizer a call before you show up first-thing in the morning.
- You may need to make an appointment. At certain markets, like the Kingston Farmers Market in New York, you’re not encouraged to just show up. Instead, you now have to sign up in advance for a 20-minute shop. If do you arrive without an appointment, you’ll likely have to wait until there’s an available time slot.
- You might be able to buy a pre-packed box of staples. Need just the core essentials (some greens, broccoli, potatoes, etc.)? Some markets are packing up essential boxes — along with some pantry staples — to make for quick, grab-and-go shopping.
- Your market might be going virtual. Some markets, like the Boulder County Farmers Market, have decided to cease traditional market operations right now, and are operating online.
How Some Farmers Markets Are Going Curbside
Farmers markets going curbside is the biggest change (and one we saw a lot around the country), so lets take a deeper look. After its initial decision to close, the BCFM hurriedly launched a virtual market. Customers can place their orders online and collect their goodies onsite with a curbside pickup. This is safer for the shoppers, market staffers, and the farmers.
Instead of interacting directly with many customers throughout the day, the farmers now have one point of contact for every sale: a market organizer, who steps into the role of middleman. (For farmers looking to boost efficiency and get back on the farm, this is good news. It’s less ideal for those who value face-to-face customer interaction and community building, points out Brian Coppom, BCFM’s Executive Director.)
Related: The Way We Eat: Marcie Todd, Urban Farmer in Columbus, Ohio
Ultimately, this change won’t make much of a difference for the farmers and customers that rely on the markets. Farmers will still be able to sell their goods, and consumers will be able to buy them. But it does create a new need: volunteers. If your local market is trying something similar, and you are well and able, consider lending a hand.
Tips for Staying Safe While Shopping at an Open Farmers Market
Here are a few guidelines, if you do decide to hit up the markets, whether for (somewhat) traditional shopping or for a curbside pick-up.
- Wear a face mask. It is now an official recommendation from the CDC. But please, don’t go out in search of a hospital-grade N95 mask; those are in short supply. A cloth mask is preferable for civilian use.
- Try to communicate with farmers in advance. If your market hasn’t gone virtual and you have access to your favorite farmers’ emails or phone numbers, it’s worth reaching out ahead of time. Many farmers are now accepting advance orders, meaning you can let them know what you want and they’ll have it packaged up and waiting for you. You may even be able to pay digitally, too.
- Minimize cash. Most vendors are hoping to minimize contact, so they might not be willing to handle cash (if you must, bring small bills to pay in exact change). Some farmers are accepting credit card payments and many are using Venmo or other third-party payment apps.
- Respect social distancing space. Keep at least six feet away from others. Wait your turn and be patient.
- Don’t touch all of the produce. While single-use gloves aren’t ideal for the environment, they will help keep both you and everyone around you healthy. And as always, don’t be that jerk who needs to squeeze 75 peaches before choosing one.
How CSAs Are Changing This Spring
CSAs (community supported agriculture) function by asking customers to sign up for a “share” of a farm, either for a set period of months (typically, spring to fall), or a full year. By investing either a lump sum or with regular payments, customers make a larger commitment to the farmers than sporadic purchases. In return, customers are promised a weekly or bi-weekly share of whatever the farm is growing and producing. It is very much a relationship, and like all relationships, farmers and customers can experience highs and lows. When the growing season is abundant, customers rejoice. When blight hits the tomato crop, or drought threatens the lettuce, everyone hunkers down, makes due with what’s available, and looks toward more fertile days.
When life is normal, CSAs get produce to customers in a variety of ways. Some, like Featherbed Lane Farm in Ballston Spa, New York, function as free choice, inviting customers to the farm and encouraging them to “shop” for the ingredients they’ll use that week. Others ask customers to pick up pre-determined amounts on the farm. And a good majority box up the goods and bring them to customers or meet folks in a neutral location, like a community center, library, or restaurant.
In the wake of a global pandemic, operations look different for CSAs. Many have changed their guidelines for pickup and delivery. If you’re currently a CSA member, the best course of action for you is to seek out instructions from your specific farm. But you can expect to experience any or all of the following changes:
- You may need to call ahead and schedule a designated pickup time, so customers don’t all gather at once.
- You may be asked to wait in your car until it’s your turn to pick up goods; or even to let the farmers come directly to your car and place your share in the trunk or backseat.
- You may have to pick out your CSA produce solo. At Featherbed Lane Farm, Tim Biello, the farm’s owner has asked members to wait in their cars while one customer enters the farm store at a time. “It’s important to us that customers still have the experience of free choice and interacting with the vegetables,” he explains, and adds that they have compostable bags available for customers to use as makeshift gloves if they didn’t bring a pair.
“Like with everything, I think customers need to be a little more patient as we’re all figuring out new systems and norms,” explains Josh Volk, the owner of Slow Hand Farm, a business entity that manages Cully Neighborhood Farm in Portland, Oregon. Of course, this means waiting your turn in good spirits and without complaint, but it also requires customers to be a little more forgiving when it comes to standards they may have previously upheld: For example, Volk is expecting to use more single-use plastic bags and gloves than the farm typically would. (While we tend to look at farms as a place to get away from plastics and unsustainable packaging, using them in a health crisis is responsible and necessary.)
What to Expect If You Want to Sign Up for a CSA
If you’re not yet a CSA member and want to become one, this is usually the time of year that most CSAs accept new members. (Right now, farms are seeding veggies in greenhouses, cleaning up and cultivating the fields, and getting ready for all that growing, weeding, and harvesting to begin.)
Some CSAs are already at capacity, though. This includes Cully Neighborhood Farm. Volk explains that he typically has one or two extra folks on his waiting list (the farm maxes out at 65 shares), but this year he has 20 additional hopefuls. While we can only speculate as to why there’s been an uptick in interest, Volk says his best guess is that customers are now worried about the availability of produce in grocery stores. We also know that some shoppers question the safety of grocery store produce, thinking that goods from farmers markets and CSAs have been handled less.
Through talking with Volk, he taught us this: Instead of begging for entry into a closed-out CSA, consider pledging your money to a newer or less-established farm that definitely needs the support. Most of your existing neighborhood and small-scale CSAs plan on remaining the size they currently are. (And after all, isn’t that why we like them? Because they are small?) The good news: Lots of farmers are getting into the CSA business now, so you’ll likely be able to find a new one that is taking members. More on this below.
Another Way Farmers Are Getting Their Crops to People
A decent amount of farmers get a bulk of their business from restaurants. With lots of restaurants now temporarily closed or offering abridged versions of their menus for takeout, this means that orders to local farms are smaller or nonexistent. In their best attempts to pivot, we’ve seen more and more farmers turn to home delivery or start little CSAs. The best way to find these farmers? Check your neighborhood Facebook group, if there is one, or the ever-growing site, Nextdoor. If you know of a farmer that usually supplies your favorite local restaurant, check to see if that restaurant is selling produce as ingredients, or look to see if that farmer has announced anything on Instagram.
One Last Thing to Remember About Farmers, Farmers Markets, and CSAs
The direct farmer-to-consumer relationship may ease anxiety for many of us, and lots of home cooks may like supporting local farmers. Yay and yay! There’s just one thing we all need to remember: It’s in everyone’s best interest not to expect perfection. Volk points out: Farmers make the commitment that they are going to put forth their best effort to provide ample high-quality food, while customers accept that they may not be getting the most picture-perfect tomato. His point is especially salient during this time, when everyone’s futures (including vegetable crops) feel uncertain.
Although we can see how it sounds, it’s also important to note that farmers are not getting rich off this pandemic. They may be seeing an increase in sales and interest from more customers, but it won’t result in a direct revenue leap. Says Volk: “I expect our revenue to be about the same as past years, but I do expect our expenses to be a little higher due to the need to rework many of the basic systems of the farm. We’ll probably also have higher materials costs with additional packaging, sanitizer, gloves, etc. Lots of little things that all add up.”
That flatlining of net income for farms may also be due to the fact that most small farms feel passionately about providing food access for struggling and/or marginalized communities. So the revenue from increased sales often go toward food donations or reduced-cost CSA shares. “Food access programs will continue to need support after the crisis,” says Biello, adding that he hopes his members and community will uphold such a voracious support of local food systems as they are now.
No matter how things change over the coming months, one thing is certain: We will rely on local farmers more than ever. “When you need food, you need to have it close by. This provides real security,” Biello says. If current trends continue, locavorism and support of CSAs and local markets will only increase: a heartwarming silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic. Relationships of all sorts are more important than ever, and we can’t help but feel a little warm and fuzzy about the fact that maybe, just maybe, when this is all over, we may all grow and eat together in greater harmony.
What’s changing at your local farmers market or with your CSA? Tell us in the comments below.