From Delivery Boxes to Drive-Thrus, These Local Farmers’ Markets Are Rising to the Challenge Amid COVID-19

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For many, the first farmers’ market of the season heralds the start of summer. Shoppers gather to meet up with friends over a cup of coffee and a gooey breakfast sandwich, listen to live music, practice yoga and, most importantly, stock up on fresh, seasonal goodies such as asparagus, rhubarb and ramps. But as stay-at-home orders went into effect across Missouri and Kansas in mid-March, local farmers’ markets began to rethink their operations in the interest of both shoppers and vendors alike.

Deemed an essential service, these markets provided critical produce, meat and pantry staples to consumers during a time of scarcity – and found creative ways to do so.

Columbia Farmers Market

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolded, restaurants across the state – and the country – began offering curbside pickup; so did the Columbia Farmers Market. For those who prefer to shop by perusing produce stands, the Columbia, Missouri, market is still open for business, but curbside pickup offers an easy solution for shoppers who want to support local while avoiding as much human contact as possible.

The farmers’ market executive director, Corrina Smith, is also president of the Missouri Farmers Market Association, which has helped her develop a multitude of connections with farmers’ markets around the country. When COVID-19 infections started to ramp up in Missouri, and Smith began seeking ways to adjust and adapt operations, she was able to look to other markets for inspiration. “Very quickly, it was like, ‘OK, this is coming here. We have to figure out how to still stay open and be flexible,’” she says.

The market put a series of safety protocols in place: All vendors are encouraged to wear masks and gloves, shoppers are required to stand six feet apart and vendors are encouraged to take credit cards as opposed to cash. Even with precautions in place, the first market day following Columbia’s stay-at-home order saw a drastic decrease in foot traffic – 2,000 customers every Saturday dropped to approximately 500. A curbside pickup program became an urgent necessity to keep vendors consistently selling their produce and other products.

Columbia Farmers Market pickup

Columbia Farmers Market 

How does it work? Customers order and pay vendors directly through an online ordering system. Available goods include a number of fan favorites from Pasta La Fata, Hemme Brothers Creamery and Uprise Bakery, to name a few. At a designated time on Saturday, customers can pull up to the market and have a market staff member place their groceries right into their vehicle for a contactless drop-off. The market also posted a list of vendors who are not part of the curbside pickup program but offer their own means of pickup and delivery through online ordering.

Each week, the market received hundreds of curbside orders, proving to be the life blood for those who depend on the market for their livelihoods. “For me, the most important thing, and the most rewarding thing, is to see my vendors be successful,” says Smith. “This is helping them continue to make a living.”

Since the Columbia stay-at-home order was lifted, the Columbia Farmers Market has seen a significant decrease in the number of curbside pickup orders. As a result, it has reduced curbside pickup hours and plans to eventually phase out the program; how long it continues depends on the number of people who continue to use it. To stay up to date about the curbside pickup program, safety protocols and more, visit the market’s website. –K.C.

Farmers Market of the Ozarks

The Farmers Market of the Ozarks can see as many as 10,000 people on any given Saturday in spring and summer, which made it impossible to continue business as usual when the COVID-19 crisis began. Executive director Karissa Kary and market manager Jesse Stone needed to act quickly to keep the market running; to comply with new health rules for public gatherings, they either had to overhaul the market’s model or shut down completely. Not wanting to lose momentum for the season – the first market day of spring was just days away – they decided to implement a drive-thru model beginning March 21.

Farmers Market of the Ozarks Drive-Through

Farmers Market of the Ozarks

Now, approximately 40 vendors line up each Saturday to serve customers, who wait in their cars for the opportunity to drive up to each vendor. While it’s impossible to conduct the same volume of business that the market would have done before COVID-19, the new model has given vendors the chance to thrive, thanks to the Springfield, Missouri, community. “Our patrons really came through,” says Kary.

The entire shopping experience takes a little longer – customers have to wait in line in their car to reach vendors and then it’s stop-and-go at each vendor through the line – but Stone, as well as vendors, try to make it fun. You might find Stone walking up and down the line of cars dressed as a carrot or a tomato, or maybe the market is hosting a drive-thru selfie contest through its Facebook page that day. While it’s not a replacement for the events (or the revenue from those events) and other community-building activities that the market usually puts on in the warm-weather months, it helps boost morale. “I see grumpy faces because they’re getting tired of sitting in their car, and they just break out into smiles,” says Stone. “They remember, ‘That’s why I’m supporting this market,’ and that changes it all.”

For those who have a few vendors in mind, customers can hop out of line after hitting their market stands of choice. For those who have just one favorite, the farmers’ market has a list of ways to contact vendors for Saturday pickup outside of the usual line. But for many, getting to peruse the offerings at each vendor – whether it’s duck eggs from Blue Heron Farm, Grandma Lena’s Honey or elderberry-ginger kombucha from Spring Branch Kombucha – even during this difficult time, helps recreate some of the natural allure of shopping at a farmers’ market. Plus, people are bound to make an impulse purchase now and again, which allows more local food producers to keep the lights on. –K.C.

Overland Park Farmers’ Market

Drive-thrus typically call to mind greasy burgers and french fries, but for a few weeks this spring, getting fresh, locally sourced produce in Overland Park, Kansas, was as easy as rolling down your driver’s seat window.

The Overland Park Farmers’ Market had originally planned to open for the season on April 7, but after COVID-19 hit, the Parks & Recreation Department decided to delay the opening to comply with local stay-at-home orders. As the team weighed their options for keeping both vendors and shoppers safe, they decided to relocate to the Overland Park Convention Center to accommodate a drive-thru market, which debuted on April 25.

The drive-thru followed a one-way path throughout the parking lot with vendors split into different rows by category, such as produce and cut flowers, prepackaged dry goods and grab-and-go foodstuffs. “To our surprise, people loved the convenience of it,” says recreation supervisor Kristina Stanley. “Many people found themselves buying a whole lot more than they normally would and discovered so many new vendors and new products – maybe they were waiting in line in front of a vendor they had never seen before. Discovering new things was a by-product of the convenience aspect.” The final drive-thru market of the season featured approximately 50 vendors and 800 cars.

Overland Park Farmers' Market

Overland Park Farmers’ Market

When the state of Kansas eased restrictions in early May, the Overland Park Farmers’ Market transitioned back into a walk-up market. Several measures are in place to promote social distancing, such as encouraging shoppers to shop alone, spacing out vendor stalls at least 10 feet apart and encouraging all vendors and customers to wear face masks. But Stanley says the drive-thru market taught them several key lessons they’ll continue to incorporate into their future operations, especially since they’re in the process of building a new market.

“COVID-19 has highlighted that while a lot of markets provide entertainment, our fundamental offering is as a food provider,” she says. “We are here to offer fresh produce and local goods to customers. Going back 10 years, there was this big ‘buy local’ movement that encouraged people to get to know your farmer, and a lot of people kept wondering if it was a fad. Here we are now, [living through] a pandemic, and it hones in on how important local, sustainable foods are to the community.” –H.R.

Tower Grove Farmers’ Market

Thanks to the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market, St. Louisans can now get fresh, local vegetables, sustainably raised meat and even handmade pasta delivered straight to their doorsteps. After deciding to suspend the winter farmers’ market in mid-March as COVID-19 began to spread throughout the area, co-founder Patrick Horine wanted to find a way to allow the market’s many vendors to continue selling their products but also to provide a resource for shoppers as some items became scarce on grocery store shelves.

In partnership with Eat Here St. Louis, a farm-to-restaurant purveyor, Tower Grove Farmers’ Market soon launched delivery of curated boxes featuring products from Bee Simple City Farm, Ivan’s Organic Fig Farm, Marshall Family Farms, Ozark Forest Mushrooms and many more. In addition to a produce box, a local meat box and a grill box perfect for backyard barbecues, the market offers themed boxes such as the “Clean Living” box with Confluence Kombucha tempeh and kimchi and juices from Beets & Bones. Customers can also order individual items such as Baetje Farms goat cheese, Heirloom Bottling Co. shrubs, Larder & Cupboard jams, STL Barkeep cocktails and Vicini Pastaria pastas and sauces. To call the delivery boxes popular would be a bit of an understatement – by May, the market was selling 500 boxes a week, which often sold out in a matter of hours.

Tower Grove Farmers' Market box

Tower Grove Farmers’ Market box

Both the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market and its sister market, The Boulevard Farmers’ Market in Richmond Heights, Missouri, reopened to the public in May with several safety measures in place – including chalked lines to promote social distancing and a mask requirement for both vendors and shoppers – but a reduced number of delivery boxes will still be available throughout the rest of the year. “No one knows when this virus is going to be over, and part of our customer base is folks who have compromised immune systems, so we want to have a way to accommodate them,” says Horine.

Overall, he says that the pandemic hasn’t slowed down local farmers, and he hopes that more consumers are encouraged to continue buying local even after the national supply chain stabilizes. “Right now, it seems like the national food chain is recovering, but for a while we were seeing how healthy our local system is,” he says. “My hope is that moving forward we can bring more farmers in the region on board just for security’s sake – having a strong local food system is important. I’ve been saying that for a long time, and now we’re seeing why.” –H.R.

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