Coronavirus: Clark, Champaign farmers markets adapt to social distancing guidelines

Harmony Farm Market plans to open as scheduled in April. BILL LACKEY/STAFF
Harmony Farm Market plans to open as scheduled in April. BILL LACKEY/STAFF

There will be no shortage of products to sell at farmers markets this season, but there is a concern about how markets will operate in the the wake of state and federal social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a Clark County horticulture educator said.

“We’ve got many farmers right now who have crops started under greenhouses so they’ve got stuff all ready for the spring,” Pamela Bennett, horticulture educator for Ohio State Extension in Clark County, told the News-Sun. “Where are they going to sell these things?

“I know there’s a lot of chatter going online about how are we doing farmers markets, keeping social distancing, because you know if you’ve been to a farmers market, everybody is shoulder-to-shoulder picking out produce.”

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The markets say they will operate under social distancing guidelines issued by Gov. Mike DeWine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Darwin Murray, owner of Harmony Farm Market and Gifts on E. National Rd. in Springfield, said he is looking at April 15 to begin selling gardening supplies, including seeds, vegetable plants and mulch.

That is a fairly typical opening day for the market, but what kind of impact the coronavirus has on business remains to be seen. Mass layoffs across the area have left many out of work, so money is tight. A reduction of foot traffic could hurt business, too.

On the other hand, demand for locally produced food could increase, especially with hard-hit groceries sporadically out of various items, including fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I can see it both ways,” Murray said. “When I’m at the market trying to get things ready, I have been answering phone calls when I can. We’re getting lots of calls from people who want to know if we’re going to open and when and if we’re going to carry plants again. People are frazzled with this.”

RELATED: How the coronavirus is impacting local agriculture

Looking to cater to patrons who might not want to fight the crowds at grocery stores right now, he said he plans to bring in produce to sell earlier than usual.

He also wonders if there will be a greater interest in gardening from people who suddenly find themselves without much else to do.

“I would anticipate what we sell here as far as plants, garden-wise, I think we’ll do really well, probably way over a normal year,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Champaign County there is a business that might have a preview of what kind of demand there will be for other markets when they open.

Champaign Locally Grown serves customers in the area through a virtual farmers market near Urbana.
Champaign Locally Grown serves customers in the area through a virtual farmers market near Urbana.

Pam Bowshier said her Champaign Locally Grown market has seen a significant increase in business in the past month despite moving from its longtime home at the YMCA in Urbana to Oakview Farm Fresh Meats on State Route 54 south of town.

A virtual farmers market, its orders are done online Thursday-Tuesday and available for pickup on Thursdays.

The move was necessitated by the YMCA having to close all its services aside from COVID-19 pandemic childcare, but it also made sense because Bowshier already had a greenhouse and a commercial kitchen at the new site.

“We’ve gone from pretty even sales to where we’ve quadrupled during all this,” Bowshier said.

“One reason, obviously, people are finally becoming more aware of what they’re eating and where it’s coming from. Another is that they can come here, they’re getting some fresh air, it’s in a wide-open space and we bring their orders ready to go.

“When they pull up, we just carry it out to their car. They don’t have to get out, they can feel safe and healthy and we basically just put it in their trunk or their backseat. They can prepay before they get here to eliminate any more contact.”

Champaign Locally Grown serves customers in the area through a virtual farmers market.
Champaign Locally Grown serves customers in the area through a virtual farmers market.

She said the new location allows Champaign Locally Grown to offer delivery, and there is an option to pay in the meat shop if necessary.

While social distancing is only an issue to a limited degree for an online market, Murray said that will be something he makes his customers aware of when the Harmony Market opens.

He and Bowshier both stressed cleanliness and sanitation are points of emphasis, but that is nothing out of the ordinary.

“Yeah, that’s a normal thing for us,” Murray said. “The vegetable tables get wiped with bleach rags and we just try to keep it all clean because there’s a lot of touching in the market. That’s another thing we’ll be looking at, too, is how often somebody’s gonna pick up the tomato and look at it and put it down.”

For that, another all-time tip is also worth remembering.

“Before you cut it, always wash it,” Murray said.