US farmers markets scaling down with eye on safety

DETROIT (AP) – For a dozen years, Johnny Gyergyou has sold meat, poultry and eggs from his Berlin Township livestock farm at Eastern Market in Detroit.

Lately, he’s been staying home as fear of the COVID-19 virus has kept thousands of shoppers away from the popular venue northeast of downtown.

“The crowds are small and there aren’t many vendors,” said Gyergyou, adding that it’s just not cost-effective to haul the loads 33 miles to Detroit where they may or may not sell.

“We’ve been doing fairly well (selling) at the farm. It’s not Eastern Market sales by no means, but at least it’s helping us along here,” said Gyergyou, 72.

Farmers, growers and operators of open-air markets are heading into a busy time of the year as many states still are under stay-at-home orders for residents and non-essential businesses to slow the spread of the coronavirus which has killed more than 60,000 people in the United States and at least 230,000 worldwide.

This September 11, 2010 file photo shows Temeka Williams (R) of Detroit using her bridge card token for a purchase from Elizabeth and Gary Lauber from Sweet Deights at the Farmer’s Market in Detroit. PHOTO: AP

Shoppers venturing out this year are just as likely to come across tables of hand sanitiser and face mask-wearing produce peddlers as they are to see bushels of corn, quarts of blueberries or flats of petunias. Many venues have moved to drive-thru shopping, reduced days or hours, and fencing to control crowds.

At the farmers market near London, England’s, Primrose Hill neighbourhood, shopping is restricted to a few people at a time who are given gloves upon entering. Vendors are spread out and work behind plastic shields.

Detroit’s Eastern Market is considering fencing. Six-foot by six-foot grids will be painted on floors as a reminder to social distance.

About a dozen vendors are participating in drive-thru shopping on Tuesdays at the market.

“It’s my feeling after listening to people that they’re scared to go down to Detroit with it being a hotspot (for the COVID-19 virus),” said Gyergyou, hoping for a return to normalcy sooner than later. “I’m anxious to get back there.”

Detroit has topped 9,000 confirmed virus cases and more than 1,000 deaths.

The farmers market in Overland Park, Kansas, outside of Kansas City, Missouri, has been relocated to the city’s convention centre where patrons drive past vendors who bring produce to their vehicles.

About 35 vendors participated on April 25 and vehicles were at the gate when the market opened at 8am. About 700 drove through before a 2pm closing, said Meg Ralph, a city spokeswoman.

Vermont officials are requiring all farmers markets to be held outdoors. Entertainment, child-ren activities and cooking demon-strations have been suspended to prevent people from congregating in small spaces.

The Bennington Farmers’ Market reopened yesterday as a pre-order drive-thru market. In Montpelier, the Capital City Market prepared for both pre-order pickups and in-person shoppers with no more than 10 people in the market at a time.

Vendors must be spaced 12 feet apart and wear face coverings and gloves.

Such precautions can take some of the joy out of outdoor shopping, but that’s the price of safety.

“They won’t be able to talk about recipes, their families; converse about the kids, like they normally do,” said Myra Gorman, market manager for the farmers market in Evanston, Illinois. “Some of them will share phone numbers so they can do that stuff later.”

The market is just north of Chicago and attracts as many as 7,000 people on a Saturday. Thirty-five vendors will be set up and only 105 or so customers will be allowed inside at any one time.

Once inside, all the thumping, touching, smelling and grabbing of fruit and vegetables will be replaced by pointing by mask-wearing customers to mask- and glove-wearing vendors.

No farmers have backed out, said Gorman, adding that “this is their business, their livelihood”.

Todd Nichols couldn’t skip the market – even if he wanted to.

Nichols is an owner of Nichols Farm & Orchard in Marengo, Illinois.

About 90 per cent of his income is from farmers markets and restaurants. Restaurant sales have fallen through the floor, he said.

“Farmers markets are just too important not to go,” Nichols said.