Local farmers markets have been able to adapt their services despite a year of lockdowns and social restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many markets in the region introduced an online ordering platform in an attempt to reach customers while adhering to government guidelines and minimising physical contact at the market. Through the online platforms, customers can place their orders based on posts of what vendors have available.
“We created an online ordering system through Facebook called Abingdon Farmers Market Direct,” said Abingdon Farmers Market Manager David McLeish. “Some customers will pick products up at the market and vendors often bring orders to cars, so people don’t have to come in.”
The Abingdon farmers market followed the Virginia governor’s guidelines and originally required vendors to wear masks while facial coverings for customers were only suggested. However, the market later revised this decision.
“Now customers have to wear masks unless they have a medical reason not to,” said McLeish.
The Jonesborough market worked with Boone Street Market to go entirely online at the start of the pandemic and noticed a huge growth in their audience. Such has been its online success that the market has opted to continue offering online services alongside the physical market.
Lindy Cutshall is a Johnson City resident who has regularly attended local farmers markets over the last decade.
“The Jonesborough market is my favorite and I’ve been going there for the last three years,” said Cutshall. “I like that all produce is from local farmers, whereas at other markets there are people who buy wholesale food.”
Cutshall suffers from asthma and falls into a high-risk category regarding COVID-19. Jonesborough’s transition to online ordering allowed Cutshall to continue supporting the market throughout the pandemic.
“I would place my order online on a Wednesday and then Boone Street arranges a Saturday pick-up time,” said Cutshall.
A mainstay in Appalachian culture, the farmers market industry was dealt a blow in the spring of 2020 when the rapid spread of COVID-19 caused nationwide shutdowns. Kayla Nichols is the marketing and communications director at the Appalachian RC&D Council, a non-profit organization that helps farmers markets through promotion support and social media training. Nichols admitted there was an early struggle for some markets when the pandemic hit last March.
“Last year the regulations and lockdown came in just when farmers markets were opening and that made it difficult for them to pivot right at the beginning of their season,” said Nichols. “We saw both sides of the coin last year with some markets having a huge increase in customers and others faced a lot of challenges.”
Appalachian RC&D runs a farmers market promotion project that has been funded by a three-year USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program grant. The final year of this grant has been extended into fall 2021 due to the impact of the pandemic.
“We still provide marketing support through signage and the production of flyers and brochures, however COVID has directed us down more of a digital path,” Nichols said. “We have adapted our methods in order to best meet the needs of the markets over the past year.”
For Johnson City resident Andrea Causebrook, the pandemic ignited her passion for farm fresh produce and shopping local.
“I started going to the Johnson City farmers market during the pandemic because I wanted to help local farmers and I think it’s important for us right now to help our neighbours,” said Causebrook. “I also felt safer shopping at the markets because of the outdoor setting.”
So, what will Appalachian farmers markets look like this season?
Although online strategies have enjoyed some success over the past year, there is a desire within the region for the return of the physical market.
“I think people really want to get back out there because a huge component of the farmers markets is the social aspect and the sense of community gathering,” said Cutshall.
David McLeish also hopes that the Abingdon market will adopt a more familiar format by the summer.
“By this spring and summer, our market will probably be 60 per cent back to normal,” McLeish said. “I think the online ordering will still be in place, but it will run alongside our in-person market.”
For more information on the changes affecting the region’s farmers markets and best practices for shoppers during COVID-19, visit https://arcd.org/farfresh/.