Farmers markets have become essential social spaces in Covid-19

A central location for activity in the age of social distancing, farmers and shoppers adjust to the spike of attendees at local outdoor markets.

On a late summer Saturday, shoppers at Durham Farmers’ Market peruse local stands wearing masks. They gather every weekend under a massive pavilion in central downtown Durham, North Carolina to purchase fresh and local produce and products. Since Covid-19, a boom in supporting local farmers and getting out of the house is the reason why a decently-attended weekly event turned into an essential hub of activity.

“The farmers’ market is one of the most social places in the downtown community,” said Durhamite, Joseph Walston, who has attended the market since he was a child. 

Walston continues. “Some vendors will recognize me even if I do not see them for years, just because of the relationships that we have created.”

Most attend the market for more than the reason of buying their food for the week. Many use the market as a place to connect with friends or to meet new people. Quite often, recipe swapping, or showing someone how to pick the best okra is part of the morning time buzz.

But there is a somber tone woven into the pace of the people. While buying fresh produce and foodstuffs, customers carefully adhere to the new order of the market. Rather than jump to stalls at a whim, market volunteers direct customers to follow arrows marked on the ground to ensure the flow of customers. While buyers approach one another and their favorite stalls, they force themselves away from their usual warm greetings due to the anxiety of breaking social distancing.

Despite the changes to the usual environment to the market, the farmers’ market provides a space for the community to rebuild itself after an extended amount of time under quarantine.

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Kate Rugani, Director of Development and Communications at Farmer Foodshare echoed the same sentiments. “I think that when you can shop from local farmers or work to aid people that are in local communities it builds a sense of goodwill and camaraderie in communities,” she said.

On one hand, COVID-19 disrupted food systems across the US. But, it also allowed Americans to reexamine food as a source of community and change. “This is an opportunity for us to build healthier relationships at the small retail farm level and we can increase their customer base,” says George C. Jones, Jr., executive head of Farmer Foodshare.

The increased support in local food was also evident at the Black Farmers’ Market also in downtown Durham. Just to get in, lines wrapped around the block for its summer launch. The market taking place just before the African American holiday Juneteenth, promotes Black entrepreneurship, as well as those who maintain Black food systems.

As Durhamites showed up to rally behind black farmers during a rise of demonstrations across the country against police brutality, all local farms in-and-around Durham have experienced an increase in shoppers before protests. However, the shift forced farmers to be more creative in retailing their food.

At the Durham Farmers’ Market, it’s more than food. As Walston says it’s “where I can connect and be friends with the world who grows my food.”

Growing the farm business in a pandemic

While large industrial farms struggled to remain open as  COVID-19 infections spread across the US months before, the resilience of local farming emerged. As farmers markets and restaurants temporarily shut down due to quarantine measures, local farmers began to innovate their businesses.

“Many of them have had to, on the fly, engage with their customers and become savvy by pivoting into online ordering systems, into on farm pick ups, and into home delivery,” explains Rugani.

One such farm that changed business strategy is Kalawi Farms, which sells at the Durham Farmers’ Market every Saturday. “We now have curbside order. We just initiated online ordering, which has been a good thing even before the pandemic came,” details Maria Williams who works as a nurse while also helping at her family’s farm adjust to new state regulations put into place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the breakdown in food systems, small-to-modest sized and family-owned farms would bring food home. Now they are running out of produce or at full capacity. “We’ve been quite busy,” says Wayne Swanson of Swanson Family Farm, a farmer who sells beef, goat and lamb meats in Georgia, the Carolinas and Pennsylvania. “But we welcome it.”

During a normal season at the Durham Farmers’ Market, the jubilee of summer wrapped colorful produce while wafts of delicious entrees of the food trucks gently perfumed the air. Now the farmers market operates with a deeper purpose, as it moves to fall in a country still in uncertain times.

Cristina Kovalik

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