March is typically an optimistic time for farmers in the Delaware Valley, but this year, the COVID-19 pandemic has the growing season off to an uncertain start. As confirmed cases of the virus in the region increase and people are advised to cancel events and stay indoors, growers and farmers market managers wonder how markets — which provide needed income for farmers and access to fresh food for neighborhoods — will be affected.
“The news and updates change so quickly that as a producer whose season is about to kick off, it definitely feels scary thinking about the possibility of not being able to move our product,” said Taproot Farm’s Ola Creston, who sells organic produce and pasture-raised eggs grown on her family’s small farm in Berks County. Creston estimates that Taproot sells a quarter of its product through its markets in Chestnut Hill, Old City, and Ambler, with CSA memberships and wholesale businesses making up the rest.
As of now, the year-round farmers markets operated by the Food Trust and Farm to City in the city and suburbs — eight combined — remain open. Earlier last week, each organization issued guidelines to their vendors designed to mitigate the spread of the virus, including frequent hand-washing, wearing gloves for cash handling, staying home when sick, and a suspension of sampling.
At the Hands on the Earth Orchard stand in Clark Park on Saturday, the Lititz-based vendor offered pre-bagged apples, noting that the fruit hadn’t been touched by other customers.
In some ways, the timing of the pandemic could be worse for farmers: COVID-19 struck when markets are still in winter mode and attendance is lower. At the height of the season, beginning around May or June, there are more than 70 pop-up markets across the region, with hundreds of vendors serving tens of thousands of shoppers each week.
Meghan Filoromo, senior farmers market program manager at the Food Trust, monitored recommendations from other market organizations, the Farmers Market Coalition, and city government before deciding that sampling would be suspended at markets in West Philly, Fitler Square, and Headhouse Square — at least through the end of March.
“Our concern isn’t around the preparation of samples by vendors, because we have safety guidelines for sampling at farmers markets, but more so for customers,” Filoromo said. “If they aren’t able to sanitize or wash their hands before consuming samples, there could be a potential issue there.”
Outside the city, some markets are considering additional measures.
At the Phoenixville Farmers’ Market, vendors and management have also decided to offer a public hand-washing station for customers and to create more distance between tables during setup to prevent crowding. Bucks County’s Wrightstown Farmers’ Market, which houses 32 vendors inside the Anchor Church during the winter, now places hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes at each entrance and works with the church to ensure frequent cleaning of high-contact surfaces like door handles.
Overall, vendors weren’t sure what to expect. Pasta Lab’s Chris Wright, who sells frozen handmade pastas at Wrightstown, Clark Park, and Headhouse Square, noted that farmers’ markets could see an uptick in business as consumers stock up. But the potential for future disruption at the markets has him reconsidering his business strategy.
“We're thinking this might push us into exploring different outlets to sell our product maybe a bit sooner than we were planning,” he said. “It might be necessary now to identify some specialty retailers in the city and try to get our product there.” Wright is also considering home delivery, which Pasta Lab has offered for excess product in the past. “It’s kind of a hassle for us,” he said, “but we might have to go that route if people are less inclined to shop at the farmers’ market or grocery store.”
For vendors who sell ready-to-eat foods, offering samples to market-goers is a big driver for sales. Sue Miller of Birchrun Hills Farm in Chester County agreed with the decision but was concerned that sales of her artisan cheeses would be down at her markets in Phoenixville, Bryn Mawr, and Society Hill over the weekend.
“We really count on sampling to sell cheese to our customers, because it's all about the flavor and the experience,” she said.
On Saturday, farmers’ markets across the city did brisk business not usually seen until high summer. At Clark Park in West Philly, lines for produce, bread, and Wright’s pasta snaked back into double-digits, and vendors predicted they’d sell out of product early.
Miller needn’t have worried about sales: “Phoenixville was crazy,” she said, even without samples. “I could have sold more, and I brought a lot. It was great for our mental health.”
Despite Saturday’s strong showing, the daily developments in the pandemic’s progress and increasingly stronger measures to mitigate the spread still spell uncertainty for the season ahead.
While all food businesses, including farms, run on slim margins, produce growers in particular have less room to adjust. Their 2020 crop plans were completed weeks ago, with fruit and vegetables that will be ready for sale in spring, summer, and fall already growing. Produce farmers have less room to adjust.
At Three Springs Fruit Farm in south-central Pennsylvania, the year’s annual vegetables have already been started based on business-as-usual sales numbers. “It’s not like we can alter how much our farm is going to produce based on what could be a projected downturn in attendance,” says Ben Wenk, who sells the farm’s tree fruit, vegetables, and value-added products like jam and apple butter at markets in Philly, Baltimore, and Washington.
As with extreme weather that has damaged crops and farm businesses in recent years, Wenk admits, there’s not much farmers can do but watch and wait. Growers and market organizers are doing everything they can to bring safe, fresh food into the city during the crisis. You can return the favor by stocking up on local food during weekend markets or purchasing a CSA share, which offers support for the full growing season.
“It puts us in a really difficult spot because the reason we do what we do is we hope that access to fresh produce is a benefit to people’s health,” he said. “The health of our customers is obviously the most important thing. Without them, we couldn’t do what we do.”