Here’s how farmers markets are adapting to the coronavirus

With the growing season nearing its peak, farmers and the markets they serve are changing regulations, altering hours and preparing for the supply to outweigh the demand.

fruit at farmers market stand in del ray
Photo courtesy of Del Ray Farmers Market

On March 23, Gov. Ralph Northam announced an executive order banning gatherings of more than 10 people, ultimately altering the daily operations of thousands of businesses throughout the region. While some organizations were permitted to stay open as essential stopping points for local residents, others were deemed nonessential, forcing them to close their doors. But what happens when your business has no doors?

For farmers markets throughout the region, answering that question has been the most difficult part of adapting to the coronavirus threat. 

“It’s been a process to work with authorities and keep markets open, as it wasn’t explicitly stated that we [farmers markets] were essential in Virginia,” says Hugo Mogollon, executive director of FreshFarm, a nonprofit organization consisting of 16 markets throughout the DMV. “We firmly believe that farmers markets should be open, but they tend to be seen as an amenity and not what they actually are, which is a food market.”

Though markets in the District and Maryland were immediately considered essential businesses when COVID-19 began to pose a threat to the region, Virginia’s markets were forced to shut down for a brief period. Industry leaders have since worked with local government entities to instill regulation that keeps residents safe, while still giving them access to locally grown, fresh produce.  

Now more than two weeks after the executive order was officially put in place, markets are starting to get their footing on the new reality, which consists of pre-bagged food options from various vendors of the DMV, pickup locations and drop-off services, instead of the former process of browsing hundreds of choices with neighbors and friends by your side. While these services keep many markets and farms from shutting down, it can create a divide in the public’s general ability to access food, according to Mogollon. 

“Working with farmers is a challenge because every single farm and every market is different—and now not everyone can make an online platform or receive preorders,” says Mogollon. “On the other side of that, we have so much food coming from everywhere. The problem is getting it to people. The adaptations are making it hard for some people to get food and that can be dangerous.” 

Late spring and early summer is when the majority of farms across the country are at the peak of their growing seasons and the height of their revenue streams, yet with the effects of the coronavirus continuing to linger, that norm is being threatened. Russell Shlagel, is already preparing for a change of pace at his farm in Waldorf, Maryland, which sources the Del Ray Farmers Market regularly. 

“We do a tremendous pick-your-own business on the weekends starting in May, with the bulk of our customers coming from NoVA,” says Shlagel. “I’m sure people will be hesitant to pick their own, so we are gearing up to offer a lot more pre-picked strawberries than we normally do, and we are setting up a drive-thru situation for the first time.”

Shlagel Farms LLC, which has been in business for over a century, has also added online ordering to its business for the first time solely for Northern Virginia customers, as all Alexandria-based farmers markets are only selling produce through preorders for the foreseeable future.

According to Shlagel, the wholesale component of his business is “nonexistent right now” too, as restaurants continue to temporarily close and grocery stores shy away from locally sourced products. Despite that though, he remains optimistic for both his business and the state of the nation as a whole.

“People are scared right now. And while I never thought I would see it in my lifetime, I know it will be OK,” says Shlagel. “I don’t know when it will all end, but I am hoping to enjoy a really good Fourth of July cookout with friends and family.”

FreshFarm is also looking ahead, with plans to create a subscription-based platform that will aggregate from all the farmers, giving a weekly bag of fruit and vegetables to families who cannot afford to purchase their own food right now. 

“This just started and we will expand as more food starts to come in. That way, you know you’ll receive a bag every week,” says Mogollon. “If people don’t want to come to us, we will come to them.”

For a full list of local farmers markets currently open and offering delivery or pickup, click here.

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