Open bins of fresh produce at farmers markets may be a thing of the past as growers grapple with how to sell food locally during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Courtesy of Marr Pond Farm

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Maine’s farmers markets are traditionally community gathering places where shoppers mill around chatting with each other and farmers while sampling everything from produce to baked goods. But these markets in Maine will take on a different feel and tone this summer where they will serve more as food distribution sites rather than spots to socialize.

This means consumers need to be prepared for a very different farmers market experience this season. The good news in this: There will be a farmers market season and farmers will be working to ensure the public remains safe and effectively socially distanced.

[Our COVID-19 tracker contains the most recent information on Maine cases by county]

“People can still come to the markets to get food from their farmers,” said Mark Guzzi, co-owner of Peacemeal Farm and manager of the Orono Farmers’ Market. “What they can’t do is come down and hangout and eat a crepe and listen to some music and catch up with their neighbors.”

Instead, consumers should be prepared to select from pre-packed packages of food that have been priced ahead of time to cut down on the time spent weighing and bagging the items at the markets. Many farms are also looking to offer online ordering options where customers choose their items ahead of time, pay online and simply pick up their order on market day to minimize personal contact even further.

“Farmers markets can’t be what we think as ‘normal’ anymore,” said Jimmy DeBiasi, director of programs for the Maine Federation of Farmers’ Markets. “There will be no touching of food or chatting with vendors.”

Social distancing

Markets will enforce the six-feet of physical space — or distancing — between people that is stipulated in Gov. Janet Mill’s executive order aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19, which means there is a finite number of customers that can fit at any one time in a market space.

“Of course you can talk to the farmers,” DiBiasi said. “But don’t loiter because you are taking up space that is valuable to other people waiting to get their food.”

To help maintain that distance between herself and her customers at the Bangor Farmers’ Market, Brittany Hopkins, who runs Wise Acres Farm with her wife Joy Trueworthy, are using tables to create a physical barrier.

“We turned our tables so they were facing the long way between us and our customers,” Hopkins said. “Then we used plastic bins to slide things up and down the tables to our customers [and] it looked pretty ridiculous, but it worked and prevented us from getting in close contact with people.”

Markets are also painting, taping or drawing lines showing the six-feet spacing and creating “lanes” to direct foot-traffic in a one-way pattern to keep things moving efficiently.

“We are really working to create a food distribution system that achieves the goal of reducing the risk of [COVID-19] exposure,” said Guzzi. “This system will enable the markets to operate in such a way they comply with the state guidelines.”

Issued by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, these guidelines include spacing vendors and booths as far apart as possible to help maintain social distancing, planning the layout to promote a free flow of foot traffic and avoid bottlenecks, having handwashing stations, no onsite food consumption or product sampling, offering grab and go bags and disinfect commonly touched surfaces.

Watch: This duo of bakers cooks up bread, scones and more

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Grab and go

For farmers like Jackie Wilson of Common Wealth Farm, chatting with customers is a treasured part of the farmers market tradition and one they will deeply miss this summer.

“We can’t be taking time to chat, [and] we won’t be socializing with our customers,” Wilson said. “And we are going to be asking for exact change, credit cards or checks.”

Market vendors like Wilson are modifying how they handle payments, with some going as far as having two separate containers of cash. One container will have the cash used to make change and that cash will have been “quarantined” for seven days prior to the market. The second container will be for the cash taken in during the market.

Taking and preparing orders ahead of time is a very new way of doing business for both market farmers and their customers.

“We are only doing prepaid preorders now,” said Hopkins “This is to speed up the process — they come to the market, say their name, grab their preorder and go.”

Moving forward, Hopkins said her farm will also offer pre-packed and pre-priced boxes of produce in addition to preorders.

“We know people really like to come and look at our produce and pick out what they want,” Hopkins said. “But the reality is we can’t be doing that now.”

Farmers with whom he is in contact have already reported an increase in preordering, DeBiasi said.

“It’s on a vendor-by-vendor basis,” he said. “But a lot of farmers are jumping on the pre-order train.”

DeBiasi recommends going to a farm’s website where they can see what the farm is offering and if they are taking pre-orders online or by phone. A list of farms who participate in markets around the state is available on the federation’s website. In addition, many farms are sharing ordering information via social media on Facebook and on specific farmers market websites.

Adapting to the changes

Farmers markets were deemed essential services under Gov. Janet Mills COVID-19 executive stay at home order and must adhere to the requirements spelled out in those orders. In other parts of the country where farmers markets either had no plans in place or where plans were not enforced, municipal leaders shut them down.

Last month the mayor of Los Angeles ordered the suspension of all farmers markets in that city due to concerns of large crowds gathering at the markets, despite orders for social distancing.

Last week the mayor of Washington D.C. shut down the city’s farmers markets until they could prove that they have a social distancing plan ready. The city’s seafood sellers were also shut down until they can present a plan after images of crowds packing into the historic Maine Avenue Fish Market circulated on social media.

In Maine, however, plans to adapt the 2020 farmers market season during a global pandemic began weeks ago, according to Guzzy, who said the industry was already well poised to meet the challenges.

“Farmers markets have a unique opportunity to be very nimble in the way they conduct business,” Guzzi said. “We are not constrained by bricks and mortar or a corporate structure and we can really adapt quickly to these changes and do a good job.”

That is good news for the consumer, according to Guzzi.

“When I look at the planning we are doing for our farmers markets, I see how we are able to distribute large volumes of food in a safe manner to people so they can go home and feed their families,” he said. “We can also continue to quickly adapt as the situation evolves [because] we expect to be operating in this [COVID-19] environment for the entirety of this market season.”

Watch: What does returning to normal look like?

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Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.