The Challenges of Indoor Farmers Markets During a Pandemic

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Courtesy Farmers Market Coalition

Throughout the pandemic, farmers markets have worked through a multitude of regulatory challenges and established their role as essential food access points in communities across the country. In the summer, farmers markets thrive outside in open-air shopping areas and provide a safe space for community members to gather and build connections within their local food system.

But what about when the weather turns cold? Many farmers markets are closed by late fall but, before the pandemic, some markets would head indoors for the winter, taking over high school gyms, church basements and other community spaces. Winter farmers market operations are important for farmers selling storage crops, for the livelihood of craft vendors whose sales increase during the holidays, and for maintaining local connections throughout the winter season. But how have indoor winter farmers markets fared during the pandemic?

Here at the national Farmers Market Coalition (FMC), we brought together stakeholders from across the farmers market sector into a “community of practice” focused on one goal: understanding how farmers markets could operate safely indoors over the winter. In the context of farmers markets and farm direct work, FMC uses communities of practice as peer-to-peer platforms for bringing together small groups of market operators, organizational leaders, network partners, and other farm direct site operators to address specific topics or areas of interest impacting their work. Nurturing communities and the connections they foster is central to strengthening local and regional food systems. These communities may be formal or informal, large or small. We may not realize how many of these communities we participate in each day and how these opportunities to share with and learn from one another influence our personal and professional experiences.

Our indoor market community of practice included a small group of market operators who were facing unique challenges in navigating the impacts of COVID-19 within indoor (or partially indoor) markets. Over the course of five months, market leaders shared past and current experiences with their operations, anticipated challenges, and proposed solutions. There were common and unique obstacles faced by each of these markets with local guidelines, capacity limitations, and resource availability all playing a role in operational responses to COVID.

This group highlighted some of the limitations (and lack of resources for issues) faced by indoor or winter season markets which may not impact outdoor spring and summer markets. Many of the operators faced significant obstacles to indoor operations in any form, due in part to space restrictions and other limitations which made redesigning market layouts difficult.

masked customers at an indoor farmers market browse a vendor's table

Within this community of practice and beyond, many farmers markets that previously moved inside during colder months simply decided to tough it out and continue outdoor operations over the winter, modifying market designs where necessary. Some markets used pavilion space to create outward-facing stalls, providing some shelter to vendors who may be on site for several hours at a time but keeping customers outside and moving through the market more quickly. Other markets provided heaters, allowed vendors to operate from vehicles, or moved to new sites with structures or trees which gave vendors and their goods some cover and protection from the elements.

These modifications are possible in some milder climates but, for those with inches of snow on the ground, operating outdoors is not a viable option regardless of the accommodations made to help mitigate the impact of colder temperatures. In those cases, market operators have had to consider changing venues to allow ample space for social distancing among vendors and shoppers. In many areas of the US, the pandemic has had devastating effects on commerce, particularly in local malls, and some farmers market operators have seen these large empty spaces as an opportunity to run a safer indoor farmers market.

For the Maple Grove Farmers Market in Minnesota, the 2020 winter market season brought the market’s first change in venue since it began operations in 2004. The new site was an empty retail space in a local shopping mall which allowed enough room for social distancing among vendors and customers without requiring one-way foot traffic – even at full capacity (130 people). A map of the market demonstrates how this new space allowed for appropriate distancing between vendors and sufficient square footage for movement and spacing of visitors.

Through all of these changes in the COVID era, public relations and community support have been more important than ever and market operators recognize the value in building and maintaining trust with both their vendor and customer base. Promoting and maintaining public support in the market has taken on a new significance during the pandemic. Markets are using the virtual opportunities COVID has presented to get creative in their brand awareness campaigns, particularly where market operations have been limited and market days have been reduced. To continue to promote their markets and keep their programs relevant during this time, some indoor farmers markets have offered market t-shirts or tote bags designed in partnership with local printers, organized a virtual book club or education events, and one even started a market podcast!

While markets hope that they will be able to return to cozier winter markets in the future, there are certainly lessons all market operators and vendors can take away from these unusual indoor market seasons. Operators have acquired broad knowledge and, in some cases, direct experience in how to create flexibility in market models; how to design safe, efficient market spaces; and how to keep their market brand in the public eye and retain a presence in their community, even when market operations are limited or reduced. Although circumstances were different for each market in this community of practice, these operators engaged with one another about the obstacles they faced, shared ideas and experiences and, to an even greater degree, created a space for shared inspiration and reflection, a vital opportunity during these challenging times.

two farmers market vendors hold signs reading

For me this Community of Practice experience reinforced the critical role farmers markets have in their communities.  It highlighted the passion and knowledge base that makes markets of all sizes and stripes possible, as well as the dedication and commitment market organizers have for finding ways to keep markets open and safe during the pandemic, so as to keep communities connected to their local producers.

Sherry Maher, Manager – Brattleboro Winter Farmers’ Market

Thanks to the pandemic, I have realized that market managers have superpowers that are widely applicable in many contexts. We understand regulations; we’re great at planning events; we’re responsive to people and their concerns; we welcome diversity; we can work magic on very short notice. Even though members of the Community of Practice had unique challenges, I think it was a good reminder that we can reach out to each other for ideas and solutions to challenges. I know that I’ve corresponded with other group members on unrelated market issues since our meetings wrapped up and have been very grateful for their thoughts.

Kirsten Bansen Weigle, Program Specialist – Maple Grove Farmers Market