Missouri farmers markets make innovative changes to address COVID-19 concerns

  • Published: Thursday, May 14, 2020

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, marketplaces around the globe are making major changes to how they operate to remain safe and viable. This has been especially true for community farmer’s markets, which have long been considered the bedrock of grassroots entrepreneurial activity. For thousands of years these farm to consumer venues have provided the public direct access to the freshest and most nutritious local foods available. Today, shoppers take comfort in getting to know better where their food is coming from and that they are helping support local producers who live right in their community. In return, vendors receive needed cash to support production and transportation costs, and benefit greatly from the immediate feedback they receive on customer preferences as they prepare for future harvests.

Farmer’s markets bring economic, health and social benefits to our Missouri communities. Main-street businesses appreciate the additional foot traffic and spin-off sales generated by the markets. In many areas, the farmers market is the community’s largest and most inclusive gathering place.  A strong “sense of place” and community pride are strengthened as people of all stripes access not only food, but also handmade arts, crafts, bedding plants, and moral support through casual community interactions.

Unfortunately, 2020’s first rite of Spring - the opening of the annual local Farmers Market, has been challenged by the fallout from COVID-19. “Even though foods businesses are considered “essential”, we were hearing that many farmer’s markets were not planning to open at all this year” said Maria Rodriguez, County Engagement Specialist for University of Missouri Extension “However, there were some successful models already being explored at year-round farmer’s markets across Missouri” she added. A team of University of Missouri Extension faculty intervened to see if some of those new approaches implemented by innovative farmer’s market managers could be shared more broadly with other market operators through online forums.

University of Missouri Extension hosted the first farmer’s market forum entitled “Innovative Ideas during COVID-19”: Three Farmers Markets in Missouri Share Their Stories” on April 8, via Zoom. This roundtable discussion, which featured representatives from three year-round markets, included: Karissa Kary, executive director, and Jesse Stone, manager, Farmers Market of the Ozarks; Rachael Lynch, manager, Webb City Farmers Market; and Corrina Smith, manager, Columbia Farmers Market.

The sessions were co-hosted and facilitated by the University of Missouri Extension Community Development Food Systems team. The forum participants received additional support, such as fact sheets, infographics, and a multipage compilation of online resources to help market managers on various topic areas. The first online event attracted 175 participants across Missouri. Many market managers immediately began implementing some of the suggestions with renewed hope that they would still be able to serve their vendors and customers in the coming 2020 season. Some of the successful approaches included increased use of internet platforms for promotions and pre-ordering. Other proposed models included drive-through shopping, and various processes that allow the shopping experience to be as safe as possible for customers and farmers alike.

While the response was very positive, feedback from the forum indicated that smaller farmer’s markets might have some unique issues to address. As a result, a second forum was created that featured four smaller Missouri markets on April 30: Andrew McGowan, Nixa Farmers Market; Elisa Bedsworth, Ivanhoe Farmers Market; Jamie Gundel, Oregon County Farmers Market; and Martha Clark, Southside Junction Farmers Market.

In the second forum, Andrew McGowan of Nixa Farmers Market illustrated that patience, flexibility, and hard work can lead to a successful market even in times such as these. His Board formulated a plan with the help of community partners and advice from state and local leaders. The plan was communicated to local partners and adjusted based on feedback. Operational changes were then communicated to vendors and customers.  These careful steps allowed a successful launch of the market, and a path forward to support the local economy, provide safer food, and to spread hope in the community. Other panelists also emphasized the importance of maintaining good communications and relationships. This would include everyone from the health and safety authorities to the local customer base and farmers who need to remain flexible throughout the transitions. Speakers encouraged all to be prepared to confront increased stress and changes with additional volunteers and perhaps a larger area for routing vehicles and parking.

“I was so proud of Missouri, Nixa and Springfield for supporting the opening of the markets, even during a local shelter-in-place order,” said Pam Duitsman, County Engagement Specialist. “The markets help support our local community economy, health, food system, and promote community engagement. Their success is a signal of hope for our community.”

The University of Missouri Extension continues to provide and update a wide array of free resources to help Missourians through the challenging times brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic. To access the video links from the two farmers’ markets panels and accompanying handouts go to: https://extension2.missouri.edu/news/mu-hosts-webinar-to-help-farmers-markets-confront-covid-19-challenges-4471; and for the most comprehensive listing of resources, visit:  https://extension2.missouri.edu/covid-19-resources-public

Writer: Pamela Duitsman

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