It’s farmers’ market season in Arkansas, however amid the COVID-19 pandemic, market managers and vendors have had to rethink their operations to stay in business and consider whether they should open at all this season.
Sixty-nine percent of the state’s farmers’ markets plan to open or are already open, based on a survey of market operators. Another 29 percent of market managers are undecided, and 2 percent said they will not open for the 2020 season.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture partnered with the Arkansas Farmers’ Market Association to survey market managers about the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their operations. The survey, conducted in late March and early April, had a 40 percent response rate, said Ron Rainey, extension economist with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture and director of the Southern Risk Management Education Center.
Arkansas has 112 farmers’ markets operating in 60 counties, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service. As the state’s restrictions on public gatherings are slowly lifted, farmers’ markets are proceeding with caution. Many have revamped their operations and delivery systems to minimize contact and maintain social distancing.
Of those 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;
11 percent will have online sales only with curbside pick-up.
DIFFERENT SELLING, SHOPPING EXPERIENCES
While the state’s markets are opening, vendors and shoppers can expect a different experience than before COVID-19.
Many markets offer drive-through and online ordering with curb-side pickup. Others still allow walk-ups, but on-site managers actively monitor and manage social distancing. Tablecloths are no longer used, so tables can be frequently sanitized.
Vendors must not only harvest their product, but also sort, package and label it. Many offer pre-packaged items to reduce handling of produce and speed up sales. Some are also struggling with this added work of timely pre-delivery, sorting and organization.
Shoppers will find the social dynamic of shopping at their local markets has changed too. Gone are the hot food sales, entertainment and craft booths, which encourage shoppers to linger and socialize with friends and neighbors.
FAYETTEVILLE’S QUICK TURNAROUND
The Fayetteville Farmers’ Market operates year-round — indoors from December to March and outdoors from April to November. Managers learned in late March just before opening day on April 4 that the city had closed Fayetteville Square, the usual site of the outdoor market.
“We had to spin on our heel,” said Teresa Maurer, co-manager and vendor coordinator for Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, which relocated to a parking lot in the city’s Evelyn Hills Shopping Center, near the site of the indoor winter market.
Maurer said the market shifted to an online ordering system to minimize contact and avoid the handling of cash and credit cards. She trained vendors remotely on how to list products on an online marketing system. The market has reduced its days of operation to Saturdays only and shortened its hours. Instead of the typical 70 vendors, there are about 24 vendors selling farm and food essentials.
Maurer said Saturday market attendance before COVID-19 was 5,000 to 10,000 people. The market now attracts about 5 percent of that number. And that’s OK for staying within current guidelines, Maurer said.
“The customers who are coming to our market are buying,” she said. “We don’t have the socializing.”
The Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, in fact, asks for “serious shoppers only during this time” on its website and asks people to not visit in large groups.
Maurer and staff monitor the number of people entering the market area. They ask guests to wear masks, wash their hands upon entering the market, and refrain from touching the produce until after purchase.
FLOWERS ARE BACK IN BUSINESS
The Arkansas Department of Health recently lifted restrictions to allow floral vendors to sell at markets. The vendors, however, can sell only cut-flower bouquets, not custom orders that require more time on site. This decision was hailed by small diversified farmers who derive significant income from flower sales.
That comes as good news to Beth Breckenridge, who plans to sell her sunflowers and zinnias at the Market at McCrory in Woodruff County when the market opens June 13.
McCrory’s market opened last year after the town received a Local Foods, Local Places grant through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It started with 11 vendors, mostly small producers and backyard gardeners who grow foods within 50 miles of the town.
“Access to local foods was one of the top issues people talked about,” Woodruff County Extension agent Leigh Ann Bullington said. “People were excited to have a market, and they want it to expand. Even though we only have it once a month, it’s a great marketing tool for the producers. The community now knows where to get produce.”
Rainey said farmers’ markets play a vital role in creating access to locally grown food and direct engagement with farmers across Arkansas’ rural and urban communities.
“We are seeing unemployment numbers approaching 20 percent, and people are seeking public assistance,” Rainey said. “One of their concerns is where they are going to get their nutrition.”
In turn, the markets give farmers and producers some visibility for their products and open the door for direct sales with new customers.
To learn about extension programs in Arkansas, contact a local Cooperative Extension Service agent or visit www.uaex.edu. Follow the agency on Twitter at @UAEX_edu.
The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.
— Tracy Courage is with the U of A System Division of Agriculture.