Farmers’ markets have long acted as community gathering places where neighbors could spend a leisurely hour or two outside, connecting with each other and the people who produce their local foods.
But the role of farmers’ markets morphed during the pandemic, shifting from a fun social event and highlighting their place as an essential source of food that for many was safer than indoor grocery stores. The markets also emerged as a much-needed sales channel for farmers and food makers who lost their foodservice business overnight as restaurants, schools and offices locked down in early 2020.
There were lessons along the way, as farmers who had been holding back on embracing digital technology discovered the value online sales could play in both generating revenue and forming customer relationships.
Around the country, consumer demand for fresh local food soared during the pandemic, according to surveys done by Stanford University researchers last summer. The study showed mismatches in supply and demand in some cases as producers figured out how to redirect food from wholesale to direct-to-consumer channels, and farmers found new ways to collaborate to generate revenue and keep food from going to waste.
“While COVID increased consumers’ interest in buying local farm products, farmers are looking for increased consumer education to strengthen the market for local goods,” the study’s authors wrote.
The Easton Farmers’ Market has been a Saturday morning staple in downtown Easton, Pa., for more than 268 years, with a mix of nearly 50 permanent and guest vendors selling fresh local produce, meats and cheeses, breads, coffee and prepared foods.
Holding the market in 2020 required making some changes, not least of which was the location. In previous years, the market was held in the circle in the center of downtown, with vendors arranged around the circle.
But a circle means it’s impossible to create entrances and exits, much less keep traffic flowing one way. The solution — a move to a park along the Delaware River, where organizers could create an entrance/exit on either end and one-way traffic down one lane and up the other.
“There was way more demand, it was phenomenal,” says Megan McBride, market district director. “It was like people were discovering farmers’ markets and direct-to-consumer sales like never before.”
That was especially true for the market’s meat vendor, who grew sales 200% over the previous year as concerns about meat from traditional slaughterhouses grew along with COVID-19 cases. The vendor estimates that it has kept about 56% of the new customers gained during the pandemic, McBride says.
“A lot of things happened because of COVID that never would have happened otherwise. It spurred the growth of farmers’ markets and CSAs.”
CSAs, short for community supported agriculture programs, had seen their popularity peak in about 2008 before beginning to wane. Then, just like farmers’ markets, CSAs’ popularity also soared in 2020 as farmers sought to replace lost wholesale and foodservice business with direct-to-consumer sales.
Under CSAs, consumers pay a set fee in the spring for a share in the season’s produce, which they typically pick up weekly at a designated spot throughout the season. Originally the boxes were filled with whatever in-season fruits and vegetables were bountiful that week, but some farmers have tweaked the model to offer shareholders more choice in the produce they receive each week, letting them pick what they want from available supplies, according to the website LocalHarvest.
Both farmers’ markets and CSAs provide farmers with essential channels for selling local produce directly to consumers. About 80% of the nearly 2 million US farms are classified as small farms, many family owned businesses, according to LocalHarvest.
Many of those small farms have had to explore new ways of getting their food to the people.
Finding new ways to connect with consumers
Vendors that had been reluctant to embrace online sales, credit cards and digital payment methods found they could adapt quickly when those tech tools became essential for doing business in the pandemic, McBride says.
“That was a game changer,” she says. “They quickly got up and running online and being able to sell online opened up a whole new world for them.”
Many of the market’s vendors offered customers the options of ordering ahead for pickup on market day, a trend that proved popular in the pandemic and helped the vendors establish new ways of connecting with consumers and fostering year-round loyalty.
Especially for the markets’ meat and cheese sellers and bakeries, those direct digital sales are continuing year-round, easing worries among many that had lost wholesale customers.
“They were so concerned initially about losing those accounts,” McBride says. “But it’s always more profitable to sell direct to consumers. A lot of them have realised that wholesale accounts are a lot more work for less money.”
The markets also offered value for low-income consumers who depend on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to feed their families. Customers at the Easton market have long been able to use their Electronic Benefit Transfer cards to make purchases at the market, which doubles the value of their fresh fruit and vegetable purchasing power up to $10 per visit.
EBT card sales grew 101% at the Easton market last season over the previous year, McBride says.
A scaled-back winter market continues during the off season, and this year organizers made the decision to change it from bi-weekly to weekly to feed local demand.
That was a big change from early 2020, when the market drew flack on social media from people worried that holding the market during a pandemic would be dangerous. In fact, McBride says, outdoor gatherings with mask and social distancing practices in place were safest.
When the new season starts on May 1, the market will still be in its new home along the river, shoppers and vendors will still be masked and the “no touching the produce” rule implemented during the pandemic will remain in place for good.
But some of the amenities that drew the community to the market in the times before COVID-19 will be returning, including the live music and tables for gathering for a bite and a chat on a sunny Saturday morning.
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