by Sally Colby

A group of experienced farm market experts gathered recently to share thoughts on how to best conduct farmers markets this season.

Mary Choate, University of New Hampshire Extension, provides some basic tips. “In addition to being six feet from others,” she said, “limit the amount of time spent in close contact. The CDC says about 15 minutes or less.”

Although COVID-19 can be transmitted by touching an object that someone who’s positive has touched, that’s low risk and not thought to be the main mode of transmission. Choate said there’s no evidence COVID-19 is spread by food, but recommended marketers spend time and energy managing high risk aspects.

The ideal situation for moving product to market would be the driver as the only person in the vehicle. “Wear a cloth face mask, clean hands when getting in the vehicle, open windows and disinfect high-touch areas,” said Choate. “For selling areas, find out what local or state health departments require.” Prices should be large and easy to read to eliminate the risk of customers lingering to read signs or having to lean in over top of products.

Consider pre-pricing items by quantity to reduce the amount of time customers spend in any given spot. Choate said gloves are not required for handling produce – but they are not a substitute for proper handwashing. If gloves are used, hands must be washed prior to putting on gloves. If gloves are worn by anyone taking payment, each pair should be discarded after use. The person should wash their hands again and put on clean gloves.

“Do not let customers select their produce,” said Choate. “Customers tell you what they want and you bag it – that can be six feet away.” Another good practice is to allow just one customer at a time, and clearly mark six feet from the table.

Choate suggested having two staff present to speed up transactions. One person can pull items selected by the customer while the other handles payment. “Encourage credit/debit cards,” she said. “Allow customers to swipe their own card, and also offer virtual ordering.”

Jimmy DeBiasi, Maine Federation of Farmers Markets, said all vendors should follow the same best practices in order to keep everyone safe and avoid being shut down. “Good marketing makes customers feel safe,” he said. “You might be gaining customers who would otherwise go to the grocery store.”

Barriers and markings should be used to maintain physical distancing. Items such as Plexiglas barriers, tables, ribbons, ropes, cones and flags all help remind customers about spacing. If possible, markets should have one-way traffic flow to promote spacing and discourage lingering.

DeBiasi said signage should reinforce market rules and provide orientation for shoppers. Vendors have an added responsibility to verbally remind people to maintain appropriate distancing and follow directional signs. Signage should include distancing reminders, instructions to not touch produce or only touch produce being purchased, where the line starts and encouragement to be patient.

One measure DeBiasi recommended for reducing the number of shoppers is a pre-order option. “It keeps lines down, reduces crowding, allows advance payment and reaches new customers,” he said. However, if pre-ordering results in the vendor taking too much time packing items, it’s important to determine how to handle that aspect as well as determining pick-up locations.

Jessica Giordani, manager of the Lebanon, NH, farmers market, noted how the town handled its unique market. The market is a program of the city of Lebanon, held in a large park-like setting, with more than 2,000 people passing through in three hours. “Planning was going well until March when we realized massive changes would be necessary,” she said. “We put together a COVID response plan and submitted it to the city.”

The Lebanon market opened May 14 and will operate through Oct. 8 with an added hour to help distribute foot traffic. “On opening night, we had 600 shoppers,” said Giordani. “We have a cut-off number and won’t let more in than a given number at a certain time.”

Giordani explained the market set-up, which is quite different than in the past. It’s a one-way loop with designated entrance and exit, with someone counting customers entering and leaving. The original version of the plan required mandatory masks for vendors and “strongly suggested” masks for customers. That was changed to requiring masks for all to maintain the community’s investment in safety. Hand sanitizer is placed throughout the market.

Prior to this year, Lebanon market customers anticipated spending several hours shopping as they enjoyed music and arts. This year, it’s a “look – don’t touch” approach. Giordano said the 2020 market is much like a CSA pickup – customers come in, pick up their order and leave.

“We asked vendors to reconfigure their tents,” said Giordani. “They were set up so customers could chat with vendors, but this year we asked vendors to block across the front of tent so there is physical distance with products set up behind. Shoppers aren’t touching every item – the farmer selects items and people put their products in their own reusable bags.” There’s also a system that allows vendors to offer pre-order options.

Giordani said that despite having to maintain guidelines to limit risk, the goal is to keep the market friendly and approachable. “People have been in isolation,” she said. “It’s good for them to get out.”

The market has no public restrooms this year, discouraging extended stays by shoppers. No eating is allowed on the grounds because it would require mask removal. The market typically features live music, but that’s been eliminated to discourage lingering.

Nada Haddad, UNH food and agriculture field specialist, suggested several payment options for customers, including a cash box in view of the vendor where customers self-pay and make change. Another option is to price produce in certain increments, from one dollar to the highest price, but such pricing should be made known ahead of time so customers are prepared.

Farmers market customers are used to bringing their own bags, so Haddad suggested signage reminding customers to wash their bags between trips, as well as reminders to wash produce prior to serving it.