5 Ways COVID-19 Has Completely Changed Farmers Markets

updated May 28, 2021
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Credit: Christine Han

Farmers markets have long been places of deep connection, community building, and an incredible way to support your local economy. Ask any frequent farmers-market shopper how their summer 2020 went, though, and they’ll likely tell you it was pretty grim. As with most forms of gathering, the pandemic pressed pause on — or significantly altered — the operation of farmers markets for the better part of the 2020 season, due to safety concerns.

As farmers markets cautiously come back (in fuller force) in 2021, It’s safe to say that they’re definitely looking much different in the wake of COVID-19. As a former vendor manager with a deep interest in farmers markets, I witnessed the evolution firsthand. I also spoke with some people who are still very much involved with farmers markets to get the inside scoop.

These are the changes I predict are here to stay.

1. Vendors have seriously embraced technology.

“One change that will stick is the newfound comfort many of our farmers have with technology,” says Catherine Crawford, a communication specialist for GrowNYC.

Over the past year, (most) farmers and vendors realized that having a social media presence and website, using QR codes, and accepting payments digitally is pretty much absolutely necessary to run their businesses. “These technologies have helped bring markets into the future and are a simple, convenient way for customers to shop and interact with brands at markets,” says Lara Boudreaux of Björn’s Colorado Honey.

That sentiment was echoed by Louella Hill, an artisan cheesemaker and owner of Ballerino Creamery in Staunton, Virgina, who saw it firsthand. “The pandemic forced us to work quickly to adopt new platforms that some had previously resisted.”

Credit: Joe Lingeman

2. Cash is no longer king.

Speaking of resisting technological platforms: Cash has always been the preferred payment at markets for an array of reasons (namely to avoid bank fees for the seller or the shopper), but having the ability to pay with a card is convenient, quick, and, best of all, no-contact. That’s why it’s exciting that contactless payment is on the rise.

“Many of our farmers and vendors had to finally get more tech-savvy as contactless payment became a goal.” says Catt Fields White, manager of San Diego County’s largest farmers market, the Little Italy Mercato.

3. Pre-ordering and online shopping are more widely available.

Many farmers and vendors have created online marketplaces so customers can pre-order or purchase items in advance. “People like being able to shop online or by phone, pay, and have the entire purchase ready for pickup when they come to your table,” says Jennifer Soukup, owner of Soukup Farms

Not only does this kind of e-commerce create another revenue stream for farmers, but it also expands reach to people who aren’t able to physically shop at the market. “This online model helped local growers access new customers who never actually made it out because of scheduling, kids, or parking,” says Hill.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

4. The shopping experience is even more streamlined.

When speeding up the payment process became necessary, vendors found even more ways to do things faster, including how their products are packaged. “We used to sell our cheeses by random weights, but now standardize everything to streamline the checkout process. No more small change!” says Hill.

In some cases, markets have adapted so that customers can swing by and simply purchase a box of fresh produce, CSA-style. “Many of us have adapted to making CSA boxes, which has helped to keep sales up and change our distribution patterns,” explains Diana Rodgers, farmers market manager of Mar Vista, Los Angeles.

5. People value local food more than ever before.

The pandemic showed us all the value shopping small — especially for food. “When supply chains broke down, new customers discovered our work with regional grains and the importance of resilient, regional food systems,” says Crawford.

It also helped people grow in their appreciation for locally grown and produced food. ”Our community became more aware of the effort required to manage their local farmers market, and appreciated that we were working so hard to protect our farmers’ livelihoods and our neighbors’ access to fresh, tasty food,” says White. “Our shoppers are even more loyal to locally grown food now.”

“Every week, we hear from our community members how grateful they are for this space, where they can connect with their neighbors and the essential people who grow and make our food,” says Lulu Meyer, CUESA‘s Director of Operations in San Francisco, CA. “We believe that renewed sense of community — that we are all in this together — will continue to grow stronger.”