Farmers’ markets move into next phase as main season starts

Jennifer Tuley with PrairiErth Farm of Atlanta greets customers June 13 at Bloomington’s Farmers’ Market, which opened on the square after months of curbside service. (Photo by Katie Bishop, PrairiErth Farm)

Ranked third in the nation, Illinois’ farmers’ markets continue adapting to provide fresh, local food while keeping people healthy.

Farmers’ markets across the state face differences based on local municipalities’ and health departments’ rules, according to Janie Maxwell, executive director of the Illinois Farmers Market Association (ILFMA). Although Gov. J.B. Pritzker named farmers’ markets “essential businesses,” the decision to allow farmers’ markets to operate rests with local authorities.

On Tuesday, Maxwell described diverse scenarios of some markets open for walk-through customers, while others remain closed. Still, other markets offer advance online ordering and prepayment.

“A lot of the markets just opened. Up north, it is more typical to open in June,” Maxwell told FarmWeek. “It’s a slow start; I hope it will continue to (grow).”

Maxwell noted her association just shared phase three COVID-19 guidelines for farmers’ markets managers, vendors and customers. View the ILFMA COVID-19 toolkit.

Raghela Scavuzzo, Illinois Farm Bureau associate director of food systems development, shared new customers being drawn to farmers’ markets. She attributed part of the draw to the markets’ “drive to be proactive and emphasize safety precautions.”

Even before farmers’ markets opened, Scavuzzo said new online ordering options gained popularity. Food MarketMaker offers online stores for farmers with profiles on the interactive database. Between April and May, more than 1,400 online transactions were made on MarketMaker with one vendor alone registering 200 transactions.

The new online pilot project “showed us the importance of e-commerce,” Scavuzzo said.

Maryville and Bloomington represent two farmers’ market scenarios.

Maryville opened 12 to 13 weeks early while “people were struggling to get meat and eggs,” said Anne Matthews, market manager and member of the market board of directors. After a store canceled Matthews’ own grocery order three times, she worked with others to see if market vendors could start selling long before the traditional opening around Memorial Day.

Maryville’s new version switched to preorders with prepayment that evolved into more online ordering by the fourth week. The new location in the village hall parking lot offered a loop drive, allowing vendors to serve customers from either side. “The mayor has been fantastic to work with, and the police and fire departments have been supportive,” Matthews said.

The curbside market is open Thursdays from 5 to 6 p.m. “At this point, we’re taking it phase by phase and will re-evaluate as time goes on,” Matthew said. “Customers like the convenience of ordering online and just driving through.”

At least one farmer vendor, Eric DeMange of DeMange Family Farms also favors the market’s new system: “When you know what you’ve sold and it’s already paid for, it sure cuts down on worry.”

Bloomington also started with preorders online and curbside service April 18 and continued through May in a new location near Grossinger Motors Arena. A prepay option was available, but some customers, including those with Link cards for food assistance, could pay at the market, said Catherine Dunlap, downtown development specialist and co-market manager for Bloomington.

In the first two weeks, the market averaged more than 300 orders with later averages around 170, according to Dunlap.

More than 2,000 customers came June 13 when the market returned to the downtown square with walk-through shopping under new health and safety rules. Vendors located on one side of the street to accommodate social distancing, Dunlap noted.

“We’re treating it like a grab-and-go market,” she said. The rules include everyone wearing face masks, limiting shoppers to one per family and customers pointing at items for vendors to package.

“Our city administration and county health department have been extremely supportive throughout the process,” Dunlap added. “We’re excited to hold the market outside and provide access to local food to our customers.”

Maxwell encouraged checking markets’ social media sites for the latest updates. General updates are available on the ILFMA website and the Illinois Specialty Growers Association website.

“The key is we want to make sure our local businesses stay in business. They’re working very hard,” Maxwell said.