Farmers markets aim to offer comforting tradition, produce

A woman puts up a sign that reads "Midtown Farmers Market."
Executive director Alicia Smith replaces a sign with information about the Midtown Farmers Market Wednesday in Minneapolis. The farmers market on Lake Street is opening for the season on Saturday with extra precautions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

In just a few days, a big empty lot next to Moon Palace Books in south Minneapolis  is going to be filled with tables piled with seedlings and early season vegetables. 

But the Midtown Farmers Market, which Molly Fleming helps run, is going to look different this season due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Customers are going to be asked to line up down the sidewalk, spacing out from each other. Market staff will let people in slowly through one entrance, past a hand-washing station and funneled through the market in just one direction. Everyone will wear a mask. 

”We’re going to have arrows marking it out, so you wash your hands, then you start that way,” Fleming said, tracing a pathway through the lot that will take customers past each vendor. 

Every day, more parades, outdoor concerts and other markers of summer in Minnesota are canceled. But across the state, another summertime tradition, outdoor farmers markets, are preparing to open up, while also trying to keep farmers and customers safe from the virus. 

Traffic cones are stacked in a trailer.
Cones, signs and a carrot costume are kept in a trailer at Midtown Farmers Market on Wednesday in Minneapolis. The farmers market will open Saturday with extra precautions in place, including having only one entrance and exit with pedestrian traffic flowing in one direction.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

“It’s actually been really sweet, the community has really turned out,” Fleming said. “In a lot of ways we’re going to be the only thing that’s open this year.”

Right now, visiting grocery stores can be intimidating, said market manager Keeya Allen. She said the farmers market is trying to provide stressed-out customers a chance to browse fresh produce in the sunshine. 

There will be other changes, too. Market staff are adding space between vendors and customers, and urging customers to use credit or exact change for purchases. They’re also working to set up online ordering and pickup.

The farmers market has always been a community event, where families and friends gather for food and live music. But this year, the market is asking that households send just one representative to shop, Allen said. There’s no music and no eating on site.

“We’re just grateful to be able to continue on,” she said. “It means a lot to people. It means a lot to us.” 

The West Side Farmers Market in St. Paul is taking many of the same steps. 

“As a nonprofit with a mission that includes supporting the local food economy, we’ve decided we absolutely have to open this year,” said executive director Molly Phipps. “It’s really central to our mission to connect the farm owners with the customers.”  

The market is helping vendors enroll in an app that allows them to accept orders and payments online, Phipps said. 

Creating enough space between vendors and customers is a special challenge for the market’s location in a relatively small parking lot, said operations manager Steve Bivans. The market is exploring creative options, including instructional signs asking people to avoid touching the produce or even using clear shower curtains to help protect vendors from the hundreds of customers they might encounter during each market day. 

Farmers markets are classified as essential businesses in Minnesota, said Kathy Zeman, executive director of the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association. She said it’s actually easier for farmers markets to adapt than supermarkets. 

“If you think about a typical grocery store, those are fixed, finite aisles. You can’t move those aisles,” Zeman said. “But in a farmers market we actually can, and we are outdoors in fresh air, which makes it easier to keep those virus particles from spreading.” 

Zeman’s organization worked with the state Department of Agriculture to come up with guidelines for markets to safely open up. The guidelines cover everything from recommendations on the physical layout of the spaces to how to most safely sanitize surfaces. 

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of shortages on their grocery shelves, Zeman said. She hopes that connecting with the people who help supply the food they eat will help consumers realize that Minnesota is rich in resources.

Jars of jam on a table.
Farmers markets are deemed an essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Courtesy of Midtown Farmers Market

“We can grow and provide most of our food if we really focus on that,” she said.  “Then we can become very resilient in this really fragile food system.” 

Tiffany Tripp owns Graise Farm in Rice County and sells eggs and pork at farmers markets throughout the year. Even after the pandemic had officially been declared, she said, customers flocked to the final winter market in Faribault to get items they could no longer find in grocery stores. 

“Customers were really happy that we were still offering the market and felt like it was in a very safe environment with lots of space and fresh air,” Tripp said. 

As a vendor, Tripp added an extra table to create distance between herself and customers. A more tricky thing was how to minimize touching forms of payment like credit cards and cash while working alone. She puts the customer’s money into a jar and then sets it aside for days to be sure it’s safe, and hands customer their change from a separate stash.  

Although some in the public are worried that food or packaging can be contaminated, there’s no evidence that there’s been food-borne transmission of the virus, said Craig Hedberg, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. 

Produce from farmers markets should just be treated like any other produce and washed with water, not with chemicals, Hedberg said. 

”The one thing we want to make sure we don’t do is to create hazards with trying to decontaminate produce from the virus that may be on it,” Hedberg said. 

Even if there are traces of the virus on an object, it still needs to make its way to your respiratory system, he said. Customers should continue to follow advice to wash their hands often and resist touching their face. 

Hedberg said an outdoor environment like a farmers market is likely safer than a building or vehicle where air is being recirculated. But he said it makes sense for customers and vendors to wear masks to reduce the chance that they’ll spread the virus and for space to be reserved between all vendors and customers. 

The Midtown Farmers Market has been a presence in south Minneapolis for almost two decades, said Alicia Smith, executive director of the Corcoran Neighborhood Organization. While the market depends on the farmers and customers, she said, both those groups also depend on the farmers market. 

“A lot of the things that we know and love and our way of life has changed dramatically or been eliminated,” Smith said. “The market is a consistent thing from life as we knew it up until a month ago. It provides some level of consistency and familiarity for the community.”  

The Midtown Farmers Market opens Saturday. The West Side Farmers Market opens June 6.