Trips to the farmers market are a summertime staple, but the novel coronavirus that arrived in March threatened to disrupt the 2020 season. It’s certainly a different experience for shoppers and producers this year, but local farmers markets have risen to the challenge, providing fresh goods and a much-needed sense of community during what has been an isolating time for many.
The COVID-19 crisis has changed local consumer habits, notes Dave Borkowski, owner of Changin’ Ways Farm and a co-founder of the Wilmington Farmers Market. Producers have experienced increased demand from farmers market customers even as wholesale demand dropped with the closing of restaurants. In the early weeks of the crisis, when grocery stores struggled to keep shelves stocked, local consumers turned out at the farmers market, which is open year-round. They’ve kept coming even as supermarkets got their supply chain issues resolved.
Andrew Lorek, owner of Farmage, participates in multiple local markets. He says customers are eager to shop and undeterred by occasional long lines. Lorek sold out completely during the first few weeks of the crisis and has increased the number of veggies he brings to the markets.
The Wilmington Farmers Market, which is held every Saturday, has met recent challenges with repeated innovation. Usually located outside Tidal Creek Co-op, the market had to relocate temporarily in January due to construction of a new apartment complex on the adjacent property, formerly home of the Cinema 6 movie theater. The market moved first to the parking lot at Wrightsville Beach Brewery and most recently to the grounds of Sea Gate Baptist Church.
During the early weeks of the COVID-19 crisis, the market implemented a drive-through system. Customers in vehicles were directed into a line that wound through the parking lot past each booth, and vendors served their customers through car windows. The market has transitioned again, this time to a one-way walk-through system, with vendor tents widely spaced on the lawn at Sea Gate Baptist.
Julie Svenson, manager of the Wilmington Farmers Market, says turnout increased from the beginning of the health crisis and has remained high, citing many customers’ preference for shopping in the open air as well as the desire to support local businesses.
“Farmers were selling out during the early days, and they’ve worked to increase supply,” she says.
The Riverfront Farmers Market in downtown Wilmington was the first of the summer-season markets to open this year, launching on the first Saturday of May with a drive-through model. The market has since transitioned to one-way foot traffic with separate entry and exit points.
As with other public spaces, capacity is limited to allow for physical distancing, but customers have queued up weekly to wait their turn to walk through and shop local.
The Farmers Market at Poplar Grove opened for the season on the last Wednesday in May with new health safeguards in place, including separate one-way entrance and exit gates for foot traffic. Face masks are required for staff and vendors, and hand sanitizer stations have been placed around the market.
Shoppers will find more options than usual. The Southport Farmers Market, normally held on Wednesdays, was canceled for the season so Poplar Grove worked to accommodate additional vendors. Even with a higher number of participants, producer booths are spaced eight feet apart to allow ample room for physical distancing.
The Wrightsville Beach Farmers Market opened for the season on June 1 and has had an impressive turnout this year, manager Katie Ryan reports. Even during the dreary, rainy weeks in the first half of June, more than 100 shoppers came out to the Monday market located on the field just behind Harbor Way Gardens.
To safeguard against COVID-19, the market asks customers to observe the one-way flow of foot traffic as they shop and to let vendors assist with items instead of picking things up from displays.
Rachel Willoughby, owner of RAWsalsa, participates in several local farmers markets. She says vendors are doing their best to keep shoppers and themselves healthy, adopting safe methods to accept payment and to distribute samples (where allowed) in addition to taking physical distancing precautions.
“We’re learning the new normal,” she says.
The community response has been heartening.
“There’s a drive to support local businesses, and I’ve gotten a lot of new customers,” Willoughby says. “People will come buy a salsa without even trying a sample — and then come back the next week and get two.”
Other farmers markets are open for the summer. The Oak Island Farmers and Artisans Market is held on Mondays. On Tuesdays, shoppers can visit the Kure Beach Market. The Thursday Summer Market in Sunset Beach has moved to Silver Coast Winery for the 2020 season. The Carolina Beach Farmers Market is held on Saturdays, as is the Onslow County Farmers Market in Jacksonville. The Riverwalk Farmers Market in Belville is open Friday through Sunday year-round. As in all public settings currently, shoppers at every farmers market are encouraged to wear a cloth face covering and allow six feet of physical distance between individuals or family groups. Exact guidelines vary slightly and may change as North Carolina enters subsequent stages of reopening. It is a good idea to check an individual market’s website or social media accounts for the latest information and to look for posted rules on site.