COVID-19 has forced a conversation about what type of work is “essential” and how to value it respectively. Often excluded from the discussion are local artisans and food producers who remain underutilized in local economic systems. Farmers markets, which have had to adapt to new social distancing and selling regulations, have been gaining traction as citizens become more concerned with their community’s social, environmental, and economic health.
When staying home became the new normal in March 2020, shopper purchasing patterns shifted dramatically. Goods like toilet paper and bleach wipes were scarce, and the shopping experience itself felt more dangerous. Food and trade shows, including local farmers markets, ceased.
Vermont, a state with a strong connection to land and agriculture, is home to more than 85 farmers markets. The Burlington Farmers Market (BFM) is one of the largest, hosting up to 118 vendors in a season. Many of the vendors in attendance rely on the market as the main revenue stream for their businesses.
In discussions about reopening, the BFM management and steering committee reexamined the role of a farmers market in the community. Mieko Ozeki, director of the BFM, spoke in a webinar hosted by Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR): “We asked, ‘What is the core idea of the farmers market? What is it supposed to do?’” Ozeki found that, in many ways, farmers markets are a sustainable solution to many of the problems faced by shoppers and local economies during the pandemic. Producers can sell products directly to consumers, eliminating the uncertainty and lack of quality control that comes with a lengthy supply chain. Also, farmers markets exist outside and help shoppers feel less at risk for transmitting COVID-19.
In May, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets (VAAFM) released market reopening guidelines. The new policies, in accordance with Governor Phil Scott’s Executive Order, outline what rules markets and shoppers must follow to stay open would dramatically change the shopping culture. Before COVID-19, farmers markets were a place where friends, families, and tourists could meet to leisurely browse. However, new regulations that limit capacity, force one-way foot traffic, and ban sampling would make shopping a much more systematic experience.
After tireless planning, on June 6th, the Burlington Farmers Market opened for its 40th season.
As predicted, the shopping culture changed. The average time spent at the Burlington Farmers Market dropped to about 15 minutes due to the increase in pre-ordering and pick-ups.
However, Ozeki observed that, as a result of the shifts in shopping preferences, there has been an increase in local buying. She said, “Shoppers are realizing…what’s on my plate means a lot for my community.” Vermonters have fully embraced the new BFM. Popular produce like raspberries, Ozeki said, can sell out before the market opens.
COVID-19 has altered consumer preferences due to concerns about safety and local economic health. New regulations for markets in the state of Vermont have forced vendors to devise pivot strategies like online sales platforms, pre-ordering, and home delivery to make up for revenue losses. Despite dramatic changes to the shopping experience at the Burlington Farmers Market, consumers have remained resilient. While the long-term effects of COVID-19 on consumer behaviors remain to be seen, farmers’ market traffic and sales indicate a greater preference for locally grown and made products.
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