OUR REGION
by Barbara Reina

 

Kinderhook Farmers’ Market in Columbia County, NY, reopened in May with COVID-19 health and safety precautions for vendors and visitors. Photos contributed

Farmers’ markets have been an enjoyable slice of local culture and tradition for many years. You may have fond memories of walking down that peaceful country road with the outdoor market in sight. As you get closer, you hear folk music being sung by a local favorite. You see children with painted faces and happy smiles crowded around tables filled with cupcakes and crafts. The hum of conversations among a crowd of local farmers, vendors, neighbors, tourists, family and friends gets louder as you arrive at the village green or market square⁠—the designated open area for this leisure outdoor community activity.

As farmers’ markets make their return, restrictions during COVID-19 have toned down the music, silenced the crafts, reduced the number of vendors and dwindled the size of the crowd in this familiar hometown scene.  At most nearby farmers’ markets, visitors are still able to buy eggs, beef, pork, chicken, honey, maple syrup, cheese, breads, seasonal vegetables and soaps and hand sanitizer made locally.

Deemed essential services due to their ability to provide nutritious food to local residents, market organizers are obligated to take on the weighty task of reducing the number of participating farmers and vendors, creating space between tents and tables, requiring vendors and visitors to wear masks and promoting social distancing instead of socializing.

“I hope this is not the ‘new normal,’” says West Stockbridge (MA) Farmers’ Market Co-Manager Sarah Thorne. “It’s going to be a very different year,” says Co-Manager Robin Schmitt. “We want to make the market as great as it can be without encouraging a lot of social interaction. It’s a little counterintuitive for a farmers’ market,” says Schmitt.

“There are a lot of logistical challenges, like putting up tents with enough space between each vendor, handling money and how to lay out the flow of visitor traffic,” says Schmitt. “The farmers’ market is the thing to do on Thursday afternoon in West Stockbridge,” says Schmitt.

A major factor in defining how local farmers are faring is how quickly they are able to adjust to the present restrictions. “For farmers, it depends on what their business model looks like,” says Great Barrington (MA) Farmers’ Market Co-Manager Bridgette Stone. “If they depend on selling to restaurants, they [farmers] are struggling.” Stone says that farmers who depend on Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and farm-owned stores for produce distribution are staying afloat during the pandemic.  

Although the market atmosphere is quieter during COVID-19, the service they provide to local communities is essential. “We are all aware of the problems that the big factory farms and slaughterhouses are facing across the country” to provide safe working conditions, says Kinderhook (NY) Farmers’ Market Manager Renee Shur. “Local farmers are providing the same type of meatproducts, locally raised and processed. I think that COVID-19 shines a light on how important it is to have a local food supply. I think it is going to be the wave of the future for local communities to have a sustainable food supply.”

“The market has become a critical access point for food-insecure people in southern Berkshire County,” says Stone. “COVID-19 has pulled back the veil on how many people are experiencing hunger.

When you support a localized food economy, what you’re doing is building resiliency in the ability of your community to address these issues in a really significant way. It feels really important to continue that work even in the face of all this change, uncertainty and restrictions,” says Stone.

In New York, the Kinderhook Farmers’ Market accepts WIC (the Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children) and the associated Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP). In Massachusetts, the West Stockbridge Farmers’ Market participates in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), augmenting the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food. The Great Barrington Farmers’ Market accepts Senior Coupons and participates in SNAP, WIC, HIP (Healthy Incentives Program) and Market Match.  

Visitors to farmers’ markets in Kinderhook, Great Barrington and West Stockbridge have the option to preorder from local farms and vendors and pick up their product at the market. They each have their own internet websites and can be found on Facebook and Instagram. Online visitors can request newsletter updates and information from each market outlining health and safety measures. All three markets opened in May and plan to continue into the fall season.