‘People still have to eat’: Missouri farmers markets take precautions, remain open

Many Missouri farmers markets will continue operating during the COVID-19 pandemic but will implement social distancing measures and other precautions designed to protect customers as well vendors.

The Columbia Farmers Market and the Mexico Farmers Market opened for the spring on April 4. Organizers had to plan how they would operate given the coronavirus pandemic.

Both markets are implementing measures to increase social distancing, which is the guideline that public health experts have promoted to limit the potential spread of the virus.

“I would say that 45 days ago we started preparing and trying to adjust our mindset on how we would be setting up at the market so that we could be better prepared,” said Leah Van Schyndel, media coordinator for the Mexico Farmers Market.

Despite the pandemic, the state has allowed farmers markets to continue operating.

“Farmers’ markets are deemed as an essential business and an important part of the food supply chain and an important source of income for Missouri’s farmers and ranchers,” said Christi Miller, program manager for the Missouri Grown program. “It is important for markets to follow safety protocols as they remain open.”

The value of food sold directly to consumers in Missouri — a figure that includes sales by farmers markets — totaled more than $30 million in 2017, according to figures obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Beyond helping Missouri farmers generate millions of dollars in annual revenue, the markets can support neighborhood revitalization, foster the development of small businesses and provide a local supply chain, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution.

As they have worked to keep these markets open, organizers have issued safety guidelines, such as ensuring vendors practice social distancing and reminding customers to stand six feet apart.

Some have transitioned to online ordering, said Corrina Smith, executive director of the Columbia Farmers Market and president of the Missouri Farmers Market Association. Farmers Market of the Ozarks in Springfield is using drive-through ordering. Other markets, such as those in Mexico and Columbia, are open but implementing measures to limit interactions.

Columbia’s farmers market is among the markets in Missouri offering curbside pick-up in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. | Ralph Chapoco/Missouri Business Alert

The coronavirus has had a profound negative impact on the economy, and farmers markets in Missouri have not been immune to the consequences.

“We don’t know how long this is going to last,” Smith said. “We don’t know how long this is going to have an impact on our vendors.”

Some vendors who committed to the Mexico Farmers Market have decided to forgo attending this season because of the pandemic.

“They want to stay home,” Van Schyndel said. “They may have compromised immune systems or larger families who are at a different age range.”

Additional policies and regulations at markets across the state were developed with a single goal in mind: to limit the potential spread of the virus.

“Our biggest thing (is) making sure our customers feel safe,” said Matthew Van Schyndel, manager of the Mexico Farmers Market. “I know our vendors are aware of it, but it is about the customers showing up. We as vendors, the manager and media manager are very aware of the situation, and taking every precaution we can to make sure the customers’ safety is the number one concern.”

At the Mexico Farmers Market, organizers have set a limit on the number of customers who may enter at a given time. If that limit is reached, people will be told to wait in line until others have completed their purchases and left.

Leah Van Schyndel said the Mexico market is increasing the spacing of vendor booths and requiring two staffers at each booth — one to take payment and another to handle the product. The market is also forbidding customers from touching items until the transaction is complete.

The Columbia Farmers Market canceled activities not directly related to selling food.

The Columbia Farmers Market is open for business but has eliminated some of the affiliated activities it traditionally offers. | Ralph Chapoco/Missouri Business Alert

“Normally, we have kid activities, live music, gardening workshops, seeding,” Smith said, “but we have eliminated all of that.”

In Columbia, food will no longer be prepared onsite. Vendors will be required to wear gloves, and there will be multiple handwashing stations. Foot traffic will be directed along a single path, and curbside pickup will be offered.

Despite the potential risks involved, Matthew Van Schyndel said it’s important to keep the markets open this season.

“People still have to eat,” he said. “We want to show we provide a quality product, locally grown, to the consumer.

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