With the coronavirus pandemic overshadowing the farmers’ market season, market managers and vendors alike are adapting to new sale models.
Traditional in-person farmers’ markets are still happening weekly in the Twin Cities despite the pandemic. Shoppers can expect more space in between stalls to encourage social distancing, and vendors wearing masks and gloves.
Due to fears of spreading the virus, some markets and individual vendors have ventured online. But while virtual farmers’ markets may decrease health risks, they present challenges of their own.
ST. PAUL CONTINUES IN-PERSON MARKETS
There are fewer vendors at the downtown St. Paul Farmers’ Market this year. There are at least a dozen empty stalls on any given weekend, said market manager David Kotsonas. Most summers, all the stalls are filled.
“Some of our vendors chose not to grow this year because of the pandemic,” Kotsonas said. “And some growers aren’t selling at the market because they have elderly parents.”
There are fewer shoppers, too.
Attendance rates at the downtown St. Paul market dropped about 50 percent this year compared with last year, and overall market sales are down about 25 percent, Kotsonas said.
Despite the decreases, in-person farmers’ markets are still the best way to engage with customers, Kotsonas said. He knew other market managers were looking into online options, but moving the 150-year-old St. Paul market online under such short notice seemed too labor-intensive, he said.
“I didn’t feel we would be able to serve enough customers online to make it worthwhile,” he said.
The pandemic’s effect on sales for individual farmers depends on who you ask. Sales at Ruhland’s Strudel Haus stand are up by 20 percent this year, said vendor Tom Ruhland. He’s been selling his take-and-bake strudels at six markets this summer.
“I think people are tired of staying home, and are looking for safe places to go,” he said.
Of course, being popular at in-person markets comes with a risk these days. While the market management is encouraging shoppers to wear masks and avoid mingling, Ruhland has seen some market-goers ignoring these precautions.
“No matter how much regulation our market managers have put into force, it’s hard to enforce,” he said.
Ruhland isn’t too worried about his health. The majority of market-goers he sees are wearing masks and give him distance, and that puts him at ease, he said.
A FARM STAND FOR THE MODERN WORLD
In response to the pandemic, some Twin Cities market managers have taken the opportunity to try serving their customers online. The Rochester and Mill City farmers’ markets offer a virtual marketplace in addition to their in-person locations, and the Linden Hills farmers’ market is now entirely online.
In early March, Linden Hills market manager Libby Wyrum used an online wholesaling platform to create a virtual marketplace. Shoppers can select fresh produce and baked goods online for pick-up.
It’s difficult to compare customer attendance and spending at traditional farmers’ markets with that at a virtual marketplace. The online market model is so new, and it has yet to attract all the traditional farmers’ market customers, Wyrum said.
Still, there is a difference between how people spend money online compared with when they bought the same produce in-person. The average online sale is at least $20 more than the average in-person sale, she said. Another perk — an online farmers’ market can’t get rained out.
“It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s a way to diversify,” Wyrum said. “We’re seeing a possibility to extend this online market model into the winter, and to include delivery services.”
For farmer Les Macare, the Linden Hills farmers’ market was more than just a place to sell produce from his farm in Colfax, Wis.
“For me, the farmers’ market is my only real social outlet for six months of the year, because we are so busy on the farm during the summer,” he said.
This year, Macare opted to do all his sales online. Selling online reduces his possibility of contracting the coronavirus, but it also reduces his profits.
“There’s definitely not the same amount of purchases or traffic online as you would get on a regular market day,” he said.
Still, given the circumstances, Macare is thankful for the online option. Even though it’s a new sales model, the people he’s working with are familiar.
“The Linden Hills market is our main market, so it made life more wonderful to work with them on an online storefront,” he said.
MAKING ENDS MEET
For Janssen Hang, doing business at in-person farmers’ markets has been stressful this year. He’s nervous he’ll get the virus, which would affect more than just his health.
“I can’t be on the farm if I contract the virus, because I risk spreading it to other farmers who use that land,” he said. “But if I’m gone from the fields for 14 days, I’ll lose thousands of dollars of produce.”
Hang still goes to the downtown St. Paul farmers’ market every weekend, and has managed to stay healthy. But his sales this year have been 20 percent to 30 percent lower than last summer, and that isn’t enough to sustain his family’s farm, he said.
To make ends meet, Hang decided to start selling produce online, too. And since there is no cohesive online marketplace for St. Paul Growers Association vendors, Hang’s family made their own.
The Hang family farm launched its online ordering platform a little over a month ago, allowing customers to pre-order vegetables for pick-up or delivery. The online service makes up 10 percent of overall sales, Hang says.
“It generated more revenue, but not enough to fill in the initial gap. And we only have a month and a half left of our season,” he said.
As much as the pandemic has taken a toll on the food and farming industry, Hang hopes people realize the importance of the vendors at their local farmers’ markets. Remember when grocery stores were short on outsourced produce during the beginning of the pandemic?
“At the end of the day, it’s about supporting your local producers. They’re the ones that will really sustain the local food economy,” Hang said.
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