Farmers Markets in a Pandemic

June 15, 2013 Farmers Market in Cedar Rapids

There is nothing better than buying a bunch of radishes at a farmers market, biting the root off one at the booth, eating it, then buying a few more bunches if they taste good.

The sights, sounds and smells of an open air farmers market are something unique. During the coronavirus pandemic the fun and experience of markets diminished as they closed and now are expected to become a place of accommodation as they begin sales again.

Nothing like a good old proclamation by the governor to suck the joy out of a farmers market:

SECTION TWO. Pursuant to Iowa Code § 29C.6(6) and Iowa Code § 135.144(3), and in conjunction with the Iowa Department of Public Health, I hereby order that farmers markets, as defined in Iowa Code § 137F shall not be prohibited as a mass gathering under the Proclamations of Disaster Emergency issued on April 6, 2020, or April 16, 2020, but only to the extent that the farmers market complies with the following requirements:

A. Farm Products and Food: The farmers market may only permit vendors who sell farm products or food. Vendors selling other goods or services are not permitted.

B. Entertainment and Activities Prohibited: Musical performances, children’s activities, contests, or other entertainment or activities organized by the farmers market or vendors are prohibited.

C. Common Seating Prohibited: Farmers markets must eliminate all common seating areas, picnic tables, or dining areas and shall prohibit vendors from having any seating for the public to congregate or eat food on the premises.

D. Vendor Spacing: Farmers markets shall space all vendor booths or assigned parking areas so that there is six feet or more of empty space from the edge one vendor’s assigned areas to the neighboring vendor.

E. Social distancing, hygiene, and public health measures: Farmers markets shall also implement reasonable measures under the circumstances of each market to ensure social distancing of vendors and customers, increased hygiene practices, and other public health measures to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 at farmers markets consistent with guidance issued by the Iowa Department of Public Health, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, and Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.

Any other farmers market, festival, or community gathering of ten or more people that does not comply with these requirements is prohibited. Customers of farmers markets are strongly encouraged to engage in social distancing, wear a mask or other protective face-covering if unable to maintain a distance of six feet from others, practice good hygiene practices, and attend the market alone without other family members.

Who will venture to a farmers market at this point in the arc of the coronavirus pandemic? Iowa is projected to reach peak resource utilization and number of deaths per day about May 4 according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Once we reach peak, we will be only halfway through the number of positive test results and deaths from COVID-19. In other words, it will be at least six to eight weeks after peak before the incidence of cases and deaths tapers off to a level regular people are willing to risk exposure to do normal things like visit farmers markets.

Farmers markets have less to offer when stripped down to an economic exchange of money for food. Tasting radishes and the like will be restricted and impractical under the proclamation. Interaction between customers and farmers is a key aspect of a market and restricting it diminishes them. It is more difficult to get to know the face of the farmer when they are wearing a mask.

Farmers are developing other means to get to market while social distancing. Our local food hub developed and is implementing an on line ordering system to minimize human contact during the pandemic. While not the best, it does provide some market for growers and as a local solution can be more acceptable to local food seekers than the governor’s proclamation. Interest in community supported agriculture rose since the pandemic began with every operator I know full or expanded this season.

We hope the coronavirus will eventually recede into the background the way influenza has. Until there is a vaccine that works consumers are expected to be skeptical about going places that are not essential. Given the low level of trust people have in our government, no proclamation from the governor will change that.