Some of Illinois’ 350 farmers markets will shutter during 2020, or postpone their openings indefinitely, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
However, most will carry on with new social distancing guidelines in place to protect market employees and consumers from exposure to the COVID-19 virus.
This is because “agricultural operations” such as farmers markets, under the direction of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, which are involved in the “cultivation, marketing, production, and distribution of animals and goods for consumption” are considered essential businesses that are allowed to remain open during the duration of the state’s stay-at-home order, which will be in effect until at least May 30.
“Everything is evolving,” said Janie Maxwell, executive director of the Illinois Farmers Market Association (ILFMA), on April 30. “There are a number of communities that are bringing their farmer’s markets online, and doing curbside or online plus delivery. Now we are seeing some opening on a face-to-face, in-and-out model.
“I think we are starting to see a number of communities figuring out what’s best for them before moving forward. We are in that period when farmer’s markets and municipalities in central and northern Illinois are making these decisions.”
In order to be open for business, farmers markets must operate in accordance with social distancing requirements, causing market managers and vendors to adjust their business practices to become compliant with the new rules.
The ILFMA recently issued new safety guidelines for market operators and managers. The guidelines include ensuring all working personnel are healthy when coming to work, cleaning and sanitizing booths and equipment on a regular basis, providing hand washing stations for employees, minimizing the handling of produce, wearing gloves when conducting transactions, and following all recommendations of state, county and local health officials.
Some Illinois market operators, as Maxwell alluded to, have opted to open with online sales due to the pandemic. The Downtown Bloomington Farmers Market (www.downtownbloomington.org) moved curbside with its April 18 opening. Online ordering can be done in advance of curbside pickup (on Lee Street, along the backside of Grossinger Motors Arena) on Saturdays. The market is operating on a cashless basis; only credit, debit and LINK are accepted for payment.
“By moving this market to an online store with the curbside market, we can support the hardworking vendors that are a part of our farmer’s market community,” said Catherine Dunlap, Downtown Bloomington Farmers Market co-manager. The market is expected to open for face-to-face business at a later date, according to Maxwell.
In Peoria, the Riverfront Market (www.visitdowntownpeoria.com), located at the 200 Block of Water Street, will open for face-to-face business with around two dozen vendors on May 16, albeit with social distancing restrictions in place. In addition to the restrictions,which include eliminating “sampling” of products, all food demonstrations and live performances typical of the eclectic market have been temporarily suspended, according to Jamie Gramm, Peoria Riverfront Market manager.
Also in Peoria, the fledgling North Valley Farmer’s Market (www.Facebook.com/urbanacrespeoria) will open for business at its downtown location at the intersection of Monroe and Spring streets, on Saturday, June 6. Established in the summer of 2019, the market “provides fresh fruits for the neighborhood and an opportunity for local folks to be able to be vendors,” according to Kathryn Diaz. “We will be following the guidelines set out by the ILFMA, as well as local and federal guidelines.”
Diaz worries that while the guidelines present certain challenges to market operators and vendors, perhaps the greatest challenge for workers will be to educate consumers on the new health regulations.
“As a market manager as well as a vendor, we can set up our expectations and our guidelines for our vendors, but people who come to shop haven’t received all of those guidelines,” said Diaz, adding that ILFMA-provided signage will be employed to help customers comply with the rules. In addition, the market will work in other ways to communicate the changes to their customers.
East Peoria Farmers Market (www.Facebook.com/EPFarmersMarket) coordinator Theresa Unzieker said organizers are moving forward as planned with the Friday, June 5 opening of the market, located in the city’s commercial Levee District.
“We’re going to change the flow of the market,” she said. “It’s definitely going to be different this year.” More than two dozen vendors generally patronize the open-air market, Unzieker said.
The Metamora Farmer’s Market (www.Facebook.com/MetamoraFarmersMarket) will open June 6 across from the historic courthouse, according to David “DJ” Wohlert, Jr., market president. “We are still in discussion about exactly how we are going to operate. It’s definitely a daunting task, but we hope to open as usual with a few different modus operandi to go by,” said Wohlert. “Every Saturday we see at least 100 to 150 people. When produce is in full swing in late summer, we have more than that.”
Across the state
There are over 350 registered farmers markets throughout the state of Illinois, with each playing host to anywhere from 10 to 75 vendors. Illinois boasts the third most number of farmers markets in the country, serving as the primary source of revenue for many beginner or small farms, according to Raghela Scavuzzo, associate director of food systems development for the Illinois Farm Bureau.
But not all eligible farmer’s markets will be allowed to set up shop in Illinois this year, despite being deemed essential. City leaders in some locations have deemed farmers markets as public gathering places and are balking at issuing the annual permits to allow their operation.
“There are a number of municipalities that have either asked their farmer’s markets to move their opening dates back to June, and others have, because of their classification as a special event requiring local-level permitting, decided not to hold any farmer’s markets or special events at all. We have had some pushback in different parts of the state,” said Maxwell. She declined to offer any data on the percentage of farmer’s markets that are closing in 2020, citing the variety and diverse nature of the ILFMA membership base.
The ILFMA is working to respond to the uncertainties by collaborating with other stakeholders to create guidance to ensure proper sanitation and appropriate social distancing, and developing an e-commerce platform available to partners in the ConnectFresh collaborative, connected by the MarketMaker database, she added.
“The guidelines that the ILFMA released have been pretty well-received by (local) health departments,” said Maxwell. “They ask that in 2020 we do not make (a trip to a farmer’s market) a family event, encourage pre-orders when possible, no touching of products, and limited contact — or no contact at all if possible — between customers and vendors. Also, you must practice social distancing within the market.”
For an interactive map of registered farmer’s markets in Illinois, visit the ILFMA website (www.ilfma.org).