By William L. Spence
for Inland 360
That Goldilocks tomato might not be within your grasp this summer.
As local farmers markets gear up for the 2020 season, they, like most other retailers, are having to make certain adjustments in light of the coronavirus outbreak.
That means market patrons may not be able to pick through the stalls as they once did, looking for the perfect fruit and vegetables: not too ripe, not too green, but just right.
That, at least, is the latest guidance from the Washington State Department of Health. Although there’s no evidence of COVID-19 being spread through contact with fruits and vegetables (or cash, or newspapers), the department recommends that farmers markets “minimize or eliminate shoppers’ ability to touch produce they aren’t buying.”
That’s one of many potential changes patrons could see in the coming weeks, as farmers markets in Clarkston, Pullman and Moscow begin operations.
Other changes include limitations on the number of people allowed within the market area at any one time, an absence of musicians and other entertainment and greater spacing between vendors. At least initially, there will likely be fewer vendors and less variety in vendors.
“We’re hoping people will be understanding,” said Amanda Argona, who serves as Moscow’s community events manager and runs the Moscow Farmers Market. “It’s just a reaction to the times.”
The Moscow market is the oldest in Idaho and ranked 20th nationwide in the 2019 America Farmland Trust annual survey. It typically has a roster of about 130 to 145 vendors, Argona said, although they can’t all be accommodated the same week.
Given the concerns about coronavirus, however, some vendors have opted out for the 2020 season. As a result, the current roster is down to about 110 vendors.
Of those, Argona said, only fresh, perishable agricultural producers will be permitted this season, at least until some of the spacing restrictions are eased.
“That brings us down to about 45 vendors,” she said.
The Moscow market plans to open June 6 this year — about a month later than normal. There will be empty spaces between the stalls, to meet social distancing requirements, and the plan is to have no more than 50 customers inside the market area at one time.
“Normally, our staff roams around the market,” Argona said. “Now, they’ll be stationary. There are five entry points; we’ll have staff members there with clickers.”
All of the changes related to coronavirus will be reevaluated weekly, she said, based on the latest guidance from the state, city and local health officials. That means the number and variety of vendors and number of patrons allowed in could expand as the season progresses.
“We spent the last month talking with vendors and planning for opening day,” Argona said. “Now we’ll take the next month to communicate with the public and think about how to bring the market back to full operations (as restrictions ease).”
Argona also serves as the volunteer marketing manager for the Pullman Farmers Market, which has a tentative opening date of May 20.
“That’s pending approval from our host location,” she said.
The market moved to the Brelsford WSU Visitor Center parking lot last year. Argona recently sent the university a proposal for market operations this year that included eliminating all entertainment and children’s programs and limiting the number of people to 10 at a time. Preference would also be given to food vendors over craft vendors.
“The focus is on being an outdoor grocery store,” she said. “If space allows, craft vendors might be allowed in. But the way the layout is, we can probably only accommodate seven or eight stalls in all (because of the spacing requirements).”
Space limitations shouldn’t be a problem for the Clarkston Farmers Market, which also plans to open June 6.
“We might have to separate the stalls by 6 feet, but we have a lot of space, so I’m not too worried about it,” said market manager Danielle Evans.
The Clarkston Market moved to Beachview Park last year. It’s been growing in recent years and now attracts about 35 vendors during the peak of the season.
However, like the Pullman and Moscow markets, vendor participation may be limited, depending on what coronavirus restrictions are in place in any given week.
“Ideally, we won’t have to do anything different,” Evans said. “But at the start, it will probably be just food vendors, although we might be able to do vendors who sell (handmade) soaps or masks.”
The market might be limited to a single entry and exit, she said, with hand-wash stations at either end.
Evans also is looking at the possibility of doing an online store for vendors, where people could order ahead and pick up the produce at the market. Argona said the Moscow market is considering a similar service.
Evans said she’s also looking for more volunteers, as well as people who are interested in serving as board members.
“We’re trying to get (federal) nonprofit status,” she said. “The board members we have right now are all vendors, and for 501(c)(3) status, anyone who has a financial gain (in the organization) can’t be on the board.”
Anyone interested in volunteering or serving on the board can contact Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Farmers market details
Opening date: June 6.
Location: Beachview Park.
Time: Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon; market runs through September.
Opening date: May 20 (tentative).
Location: Brelsford-WSU Visitor Center.
Time: Wednesday from 3:30-6:30 p.m.; market runs through mid-October.
Opening date: June 6.
Location: Main Street, in the central business district.
Time: Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; market runs through October.
Spence covers politics for the Tribune. He may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 791-9168.