Despite new regulations and restrictions due to COVID-19, some farmers markets are still opening up for the season, though many are making adjustments.
According to information from the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, 69% of the state’s farmers markets plan to open or already are open for the season. That number is based on a survey of the state’s farmers market operators.
The survey also concluded 56% of market operators surveyed said they plan on limiting the number of customers allowed, while 33% plan to have fewer vendors.
Angela Gardner works in the Local, Regional & Safe Foods Unit at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture Cooperative Extension Service.
She says COVID-19 has disrupted the start of the farmers market season. This included some restrictions from the Arkansas Department of Health in March that dictated what safety practices needed to be followed as well as what could be sold.
"Starting out, the Department of Health only allowed the sale of produce, so fruits and vegetables and some personal hygiene products such as soap and cloth face masks. Anything else at the market was restricted," Gardner said.
As of May 18, those restrictions were lifted by the Health Department, allowing for the selling of cut flowers and other products. The department also adjusted its guidelines for large gatherings that take place outdoors. Gardner says these changes have benefits for farmers markets.
"This would provide more accessibility to farmers markets who weren’t able to manage and execute the directives from March. Most of our other markets were able to roll out the guidelines that have since been published now. So we’re going to see a few more farmers markets open up," Gardner said.
One farmers market that has not opened up yet is the Little Rock Farmers Market located in the River Market. According to their website, they are not planning on opening up in June, but are reassessing every two weeks when they may be able to open.
Ron Rainey is an extension economist with the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, and the director of the Southern Risk Management Education Center. He says another way markets are changing is in how products are sold.
"So a number of the markets have gone to prepackaging their products and either putting them in sacks or having prepackaged items set there so the customer doesn’t have to reach through and pick through individual items and can pick up a package of items," Rainey said.
Another adjustment that Rainey says many markets are considering is moving its sales online. He calls that the biggest challenge for markets this season
"Some of the markets have struggled with trying to convert some of their standard practices to online options. For instance, so that a consumer can look at items that are available online and make those selections prior to arriving at the market. Or a consumer can actually go through and make their purchases online," Rainey said.
For some areas of the state with less reliable internet access, Rainey says this move to online sales is an issue. He says it’s also hindering some markets’ ability to expand their acceptance of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, people are eating out in restaurants less, instead choosing to stay in and cook. Back in May, NPR published an article on the growth of a national increased demand for "community supported agriculture" or CSA.
Rainey says he is seeing a demand for CSA in Arkansas as well, though there are some obstacles that come with that model.
"Delivery is a hurdle for a small farm. If you think about the farm, they would almost have to hire an additional person just to actually be a deliverer or have multiple people making those deliveries. So that’s a hurdle for a number of the farmer’s market vendors," Rainey said. He says the farms that are offering direct to home deliveries are usually larger and can afford to provide that extra service.
One company in the Little Rock area has tapped into the appeal of CSA and partnered up with local farms and businesses to deliver products to customers. Benjamin Harrison is the CEO of FareMarket. Because they opened in April, he says he doesn’t have a time before the coronavirus pandemic to compare how business has changed.
"We had customer quantity expectations and we had revenue expectations and those increased by month according to our budget projections, and we’re ahead of the curve," Harrison said. Additionally, he says he’s heard of success at local farmers markets and farms.
"I’m kind of impressed how quickly everybody has adapted technology to the best that they can to the situation," Harrison said.
While some farms cannot participate in CSA, Rainey says some are have great success selling their products at farmers markets.
"I’ve had some anecdotal comments from farmers that they’re able to sell everything that they can move out of their field, everything they can successfully harvest. And I think that’s a good thing in that consumers are actively seeking to eat fresh produce. I think their health consciousness has raised and I think they’re interested in trying to secure food items where they’re confident of where that food came from is something that they’re seeking out," Rainey said.