OREGON CITY, Ore. — At the Oregon City Farmers Market last Saturday, rain battered canopies, vendors wore masks and gloves, and customers picked up prepaid food drive-thru style.
Despite the unusual scene, according to market co-manager Jackie Hammond-Williams, vendors are experiencing record sales during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Statewide, farmers markets are adopting safety procedures and seeing a huge spike in sales, said Kelly Crane, executive director of the Oregon Farmers Market Association.
“We’re seeing a decrease in visitation but a dramatic increase in sales, as people send fewer family members to market but buy more,” said Crane. “As people are experiencing bare grocery store shelves, they’re turning to their local supply chain to fill those gaps.”
Consumers say they are choosing farmers markets to avoid grocery stores, shorten the supply chain, eat fresh produce, secure a dependable food source in a time of insecurity and support local producers.
“My husband has compromised lungs, so we’ve taken the quarantine very seriously, and we’re not going to grocery stores,” said April Geiger, customer of the Oregon City Farmers Market. “When the market rolled out an app to prepay and had us drive through to pick up the food, I thought, ‘This is the way to go.’ It felt so right, so responsible.”
Across Oregon, according to Crane of OFMA, farmers markets have been testing new strategies. The past few weeks, said Crane, markets have slashed unnecessary programs, kept sick workers home, used colored tape to keep people apart and set up hand-sanitizing stations.
By the end of March, said Heidi Noordjik, small farms coordinator at Oregon State University, some markets had switched to prepay and drive-thru options only.
OFMA recently hosted a statewide meeting over Zoom, a conference call platform, during which 45 market managers said they were interested in this new model.
“It’s pretty breakneck speed,” said Crane. “Transforming an industry overnight is not an easy task.”
Melissa Streng, a farmer at Sun Love Farm and vendor at the Oregon City Farmers Market, said adjusting has been a challenge.
“It basically changed my business model overnight,” said Streng. “But as a farmer, I have to adapt to changing situations all the time.”
Streng, who is pregnant, said although she misses the closer interactions with customers, she’s grateful for the new practices at a time when she’s “not comfortable selling in the traditional market setting.”
Other farmers have applauded the new system.
Gus Liszka, co-owner of Naked Acres Farm in Portland, Ore., is trying to keep up with record meat sales. She said she appreciates the changes Hillsdale Market, where she is a vendor, has made by also switching to prepay and pickup-only. Liszka is also a vendor at Hollywood Market, where pre-order options are still in progress.
“We farmers want to be safe, too,” she said. “Frankly, I’m scared of handling cash.”
Hammond-Williams said the Oregon City Farmers Market’s customers will now use an app, called WhatsGoodMarketplace, for preordering.
Some vendors say they’re concerned the app may exclude older consumers and farmers with limited access to or knowledge of technology. But overall, producers and consumers say they feel safer using the app.
“What a time,” said Hammond-Williams. A transplant to Oregon, she spoke with a British accent: precise, clipped, colorful. “All our plans, the things we were known for — out the window. But I’m glad we’ve had our feet to the fire. It’s honed our adaption skills quite fast. The importance of local food has resonated with people we’ve never reached before. And once we come out of this, I think those farmers markets which survive will be stronger than before.”