Arkansas farmers markets are a weekend staple for many local fresh produce shoppers. Full of not only seasonal goods but also hot food sales, music, entertainment, flowers and even craft booths, the farmers markets also serve as a fun social scene for multiple communities.
However, as the threat of COVID-19 made its way into Arkansas, farmers markets became one of the hundreds of industries that had to make changes in order to adapt, and while they were never legally asked to completely close in its wake, many did.
Early in the pandemic, on March 26, Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith issued a directive that, for farmers markets, prohibited sales of non-food items, as well as live musicians, performances, cooking demonstrations, and other events where crowds could gather. As of Monday, May 18, farmers markets can now follow the directives for large outdoor venue gatherings. The number of people allowed in the market area has been increased to 50 and the restrictions on what can be sold have been lifted, but the markets may still be slow to return to their normal operations.
The original March 28 directive completely prohibited the gatherings of more than 10 people in any confined indoor or outdoor space, but farmers markets were exempt because of being “critical in ensuring Arkansans have access to healthy food options.” A list of suggestions for minimizing contact and staying within social distancing requirements was provided and included things such as discouraging market visits for patrons who are sick and encouraging vendors to offer online ordering and curbside or delivery options.
In late March and early April, the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture along with the Arkansas Farmers’ Market Association surveyed market managers about the effects of COVID-19 on their business operations.
Arkansas has 112 farmers markets operating in 60 counties, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Ron Rainey, extension economist with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and director of the Southern Risk Management Education Center, said the survey had a 40 percent response rate and 70 percent of those markets were planning on opening — only 2 percent said they weren’t going to open. The others, who were undecided, were trying to figure out how to remain open.
Of those who were surveyed, 18 percent plan to reduce their hours or days of operation, 56 percent will limit the number of customers, 33 percent will have fewer vendors, and 11 percent will have online sales only with curbside pick-up.
While pick-up options are a good way to reduce handling and minimize crowds, it comes with its own set of challenges, such as longer hours for workers. Vendors must now not only harvest their products, but also sort, package and label it leading to many extra hours of labor spent sorting and organizing.
“I have heard from a couple of markets that sales are down because of [less] traffic and fewer customers, and because of the additional hurdle and time it takes for the farmers to pre-package or the market managers to pre-package the items,” Rainey said. “I’ve also heard from individual farmers that have farm stands or you-pick operations that their sales are up and they’re able to move as much product as they are able to get harvested, which is exciting news.”
Rainey said that in an attempt to avoid crowds, some individuals might feel better about going to an individual farm versus visiting a potentially crowded market.
However, farmers markets also serve a variety of other vendors who are not farmers so even with this statistic, reopening local markets is still high on the list of priorities for market managers.
The challenge for those markets who will soon be reopening is finding innovative ways to minimize handling of goods, maintaining crowd control, and limiting the amount of time customers spend browsing and making transactions while in the market.
Angela Gardner, Food Systems and Safety Program Associate at University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, said that meeting the guidelines for opening depends heavily on the markets’ management’s access to resources.
“In order to open the market, the market still needs to have hand sanitizing or hand washing stations at all entrances and exits and they need to monitor the flow of consumers and ensure that people are wearing face coverings, that they’re maintaining six feet of social distancing … for some farmers markets, they may not have that capacity to have the hand sanitizer/hand washing stations or to keep those stations supplied or to also manage the flow,” Gardner said. “It just really depends on the capacity of the management of the farmers market itself.”
While pre-planning cannot totally resolve lack of capacity, it could be helpful for markets who can structurally design a functional space for shoppers that also meets requirements.
“The biggest thing is, before a farmers market opens up, you really need to design your market so there aren’t any bottlenecks at the entrance, at the handwashing station or the hand sanitizing stations … [and using] signage and visuals.” Gardner said. “Having access to materials to post in the market may be a barrier for some of our markets.”
Masks are also still required for anyone present in any of the state’s farmers markets.
For markets that aren’t quite able to open back up to the public yet, online platforms have provided a way for farmers to continue serving through their local market.
The Fayetteville Farmers Market, which never fully closed, has found great success with their use of online ordering through a service called LocallyGrown.net, which allows them to also serve SNAP customers.
FFM Business and Program Coordinator Leann Halsey said that they “didn’t skip a beat.”
The Fayetteville Square staple has temporarily been moved to the winter market location at Evelyn Hills Shopping Center.
“We now operate with online sales and a small walk-up market,” Halsey said. “Online is a drive-through pick up at Evelyn Hills. People order on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday and they pick up on Saturday between 8:30 and 1:30, and that’s been driving our business thus far because the [ADH], they regulated farmers markets to say that we could only have essential food items available at our walk up markets … We have a lot of artisans and craft vendors and so the concern was, ‘where do these people get economic benefit or opportunity?’ So that was another reason why our online market was so important because it was the only place where we could sell cut flowers, crafts, candles, things like that up until just this past week.”
Halsey said farmers were taking the biggest loss on flowers and, because of the newly lifted restrictions, being able to now sell them at the walk-up market has been very helpful. She said this week, the market will average around 20 vendors.
Rainey said that a national statistic showed that the number of pre-pandemic consumers who spent more on food away from home than they did on food at home was high, but immediately after COVID-19 led to restaurant closures and job losses, that number dropped drastically.
“We are seeing unemployment numbers approaching 20 percent, and people are seeking public assistance,” Rainey told UAEX. “One of their concerns is where they are going to get their nutrition.”
This new group of shoppers, an upward trend in wanting to support local businesses, and availability of open markets will hopefully provide vendors with the opportunity to build relationships with a more diverse population of consumers, including those who may end up sustaining the online ordering options simply because of convenience.
“I’m hopeful that we can be innovative to figure out additional ways to help farmers get online because that’s a trend that’s continued to grow, because we are a country of consumers who seek convenience,” Rainey said. “We need local farmers to make sure we have that component within our food systems.”
The Hillcrest Market and the River Market Farmers Market have not yet set definitive dates for reopening.
For more information on local farmers markets and COVID-19 resources, visit www.uaex.edu/localfoods.