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Philly’s farmers markets roll with the punches during a pandemic

Gone are the free tastes of cheese and bread, the gulps of wine and swigs of local cider.

A board with a list of rules for shoppers at the Headhouse Farmers' Market in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia on Sunday, March 22, 2020.  The market is open even after Gov. Tom Wolf called for the closure of all businesses that are not "life-sustaining," due to the spread of the coronavirus.
A board with a list of rules for shoppers at the Headhouse Farmers' Market in the Society Hill section of Philadelphia on Sunday, March 22, 2020. The market is open even after Gov. Tom Wolf called for the closure of all businesses that are not "life-sustaining," due to the spread of the coronavirus.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

On an overcast Sunday morning, the line to buy chicken from the Griggstown Farm stall at the Headhouse Square farmers market was just seven people long. But with customers spaced out according to social distancing standards, it looked intimidatingly long, stretched down the shambles.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed Philadelphia’s farmers markets. They’re no longer venues for leisurely post-brunch strolls. Gone are the free tastes of cheese and bread, the gulps of wine and swigs of local cider. And no more picking through produce; many farmers instead pre-weigh their product in an effort to speed shoppers along and minimize touching.

“I spend a lot less time socializing, for sure,” said Headhouse regular Neil Izenberg, a retired pediatrician who lives in Queen Village. “Just like everything else, [the market has] undergone a pretty dramatic transformation. But I think totally appropriate for the time we’re going through.”

While the markets have changed, the service they provide has never been more essential. Market organizers and vendors have had to adjust, quickly transitioning from cash-only exchanges to online stores and forgoing their usual salesmanship in the name of safety.

The usual hustle and bustle at the Rittenhouse Square market has been tamed. On a recent Saturday, it looked more like a ghost town. Caution tape marked off entrances on the Walnut Street sidewalk, and taped-up signs instructed shoppers to “kindly insist” on social distancing. No fruits and vegetables were on display under the white tents, many of which went unmanned. Instead, tables were lined with bags labeled with customers’ names.

“We feel like this is a very safe way to conduct business,” said Jon Glyn, farmers market program manager for Farm to City, which runs Rittenhouse’s market as well as winter markets in Chestnut Hill, Bryn Mawr, University City, and Media. “We find we’re stricter than grocery stores.”

Indeed, there were no options for impulse buys, nor could passersby snag a last-minute purchase. Everything must be ordered and paid for in advance, and each vendors’ deadline varies. Printed signs pointed visitors to the website It’s a barrier for customers who don’t like to plan ahead, and it’s a hurdle for vendors, too.

“It just makes it a little more difficult for the people who don’t know that we’re vendors in the market, or aren’t in contact with the market in any way, or don’t know what site to go to — which is a fair amount of people,” said Randy Lee, partner in Buck Wild Bison, which has only been a Rittenhouse vendor for about a month.

Lee had driven in from Port Norris, N.J., with around 10 orders. Bison is not as farmers-market friendly without customer service, he said. “I have a product that needs to be sold to people. They don’t know about bisons, they haven’t had it.”

Thankfully, the four-year-old company already deals mostly in online orders, of which they had seen an uptick.

That wasn’t the case for Lancaster County’s Rineer Family Farms, which relies on farmers markets to sell its produce, chicken, pork, and beef. Owner Daryl Rineer said that while the farm didn’t have as many customers as it usually does, those it did have were buying more.

In order to adapt to Farm to City’s safety measures, Rineer had to overhaul his way of reaching customers in about a week’s time. “We went from just a plain basic website [to] a fairly elaborate online ordering system. For us, that’s a big change.”

The switch has made the back-end process more involved: Individual orders must be sorted and bagged, and invoices are sent and paid for via Square. “It’s a wonderful system,” Rineer said, “it’s just not something we’re used to.”

Glyn said the pivot was admirable. “Pennsylvania farmers, you won’t find a more resourceful group of people,” he said. “They’re really stepping up to the plate, hitting every curve ball that comes their way.”

Vendors at the Food Trust’s year-round farmers markets — Headhouse Square, Fitler Square, and Clark Park — are likewise dealing with curve balls, but perhaps gentler ones. Customers are encouraged to preorder online but can still shop on the day-of, which means the markets look more familiar: Baked goods and produce sit out on tables. Customers chat with vendors as they fill orders. Dog-walkers drink coffee and wait on the sidelines as designated shoppers collect groceries.

Of course, signs of coronavirus’ impact were unmistakable at Headhouse recently. Customers were bent over handwashing stations and vendors were wearing gloves and face masks, even before it was advised. The stalls had been moved outside the shambles’ brick columns to leave more space.

Savoie Farms’ stand had pushed together plastic tables to create a buffer at checkout. Owner-operator Carol Savoie said customers were respecting the distancing measures and that she felt a shared sense of camaraderie among the market’s vendors and customers.

“I was telling a gentleman this morning, I feel like times like this make you realize how much we appreciate each other,” Savoie said.

Initially Savoie and her husband had worried farmers markets would close, cutting off a source of income and disrupting their plans for the upcoming summer season. “It’s been a huge relief” that the Food Trust continues to operate.

“Actually we’ve had a bump on site because people are stocking up,” she said. “Ordinarily at this time of year the potatoes wouldn’t be selling as voluminously as they are.”

A few stalls over, Frank Mitchell of Mitchell & Mitchell Wines had also seen an uptick in sales. The Philadelphia-based winery, which imports its grapes, has established a reputation at the Headhouse and Clark Park markets that’s helped it sell wine even without free samples.

“With the state stores being closed, everybody’s options are limited,” Mitchell said. “So we’ve actually seen a pickup in sales, and we’re hoping that we’re able to maintain it.”

Gil Ortale and Nem Ngo of Market Day Canelé have been selling at the Headhouse market for 10 years. In between greeting regulars, they said that business had been steady and supportive.

“The feedback I got directly from a lot of customers is that they like shopping here more than the grocery stores because they tend to be so packed. And the Food Trust has done a lot. They put in a lot of good protocols to space everybody out,” Ngo said.

The Food Trust has tweaked its setup from week to week to control the flow of customers in the markets. Lately, Headhouse Square has been roped off to meter the flow of customers, said senior program manager Meghan Filoromo. They’ve instated a special shopping time for seniors and the immunocompromised from 9:30 to 10 a.m. Organizers are also encouraging people to move through the market as quickly as possible.

The nonprofit is still also accepting SNAP benefits and giving out Philly Food Buck coupons in return, allowing low-income shoppers to increase their food budget. And it intends to open its many summer markets in May and June, factoring in the requisite safety measures.

Meanwhile, this Saturday, Farm to City will reopen some retail sales at the Rittenhouse market from noon to 2 p.m. “The producers are very confident they can do this in a safe and conscientious way,” said Glyn, who stressed that preorders are still less risky. As at Headhouse, farmers and vendors will package orders for customers, who will stay at a safe distance.

“With things changing so fast,” Glyn said, “we’re trying to just roll with the punches.”

The experience of the farmers market may be different, but thankfully, it’s not going anywhere.