NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday July 14th, 2020. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: farmers markets and COVID-19.
In most states with early growing seasons, farmer’s markets remained open. They’ve enjoyed the designation “essential businesses.”
EICHER: But federal and state restrictions across the country grew in severity and duration in April and May. So many market farmers in the North and Midwest wondered if, and when, they’d be allowed to resume selling their produce.
Illinois entered phase four of its reopening in late June and farmers there were allowed to set up their stalls just a few weeks later than usual.
Paul Butler paid a visit to a local produce market in rural Illinois over the weekend to see how it’s going.
WALTERS: Ok, so the market’s been open for 34 minutes, we’ve got 41 visitors so far…
PAUL BUTLER, CORRESPONDENT: Bryon Walters sells honey every Saturday morning at the Mendota Illinois Farmers Market. He’s also the manager. This market was one of the first in the area to re-open.
WALTERS: The very first week we hit 400 visitors, which was tremendous. I think it was a lot of pent up demand. People wanted to get out, we’re getting a lot of new customers, a lot of young folks. So we’ve been very pleasantly surprised [with] how well the turnout has been even in this hot weather.
Three weeks into the shortened season, there’s been a marked increase in foot traffic over last year. But it’s still too early to tell if it’s a trend—Walters thinks it is. He suggests it’s related to the pandemic, as people are concerned about how their fresh food is handled.
WALTERS: I think they realized farmer’s markets are a friendly place. Most of these food products are only handled by the original producers. So it doesn’t go through a long chain of people where there could be more contagion added onto the products.
After months of uncertainty Walters is glad to finally open, but it’s not business as usual. He introduced a plexiglass shield across the front of his table of honey jars. His airplane themed face mask fits loosely under his chin during the interview, but he raises it quickly to talk with customers.
AUDIO: [SOUND OF WALTERS SPEAKING WITH CUSTOMER]
Every vendor prominently displays a large red and white warning sign. As Walters says: “It’s mandatory.”
WALTERS: Please practice social distancing, maintain six foot spacing. Please wear a face mask for everyone’s protection and please do not touch the products unless the vendor allows.
Personal protection and social distancing aside, there’s another significant departure from previous markets.
WALTERS: We don’t have arts and crafts or music. We’re what they call an “in and out market,” buy your products and head down the road, just like you would at a grocery store.
According to Walters, that goes against the grain for most vendors and customers. The six sellers here this morning still talk with their customers, but the conversations are short, at a distance, and for most—through a mask. Still, everyone is trying to keep things as normal as possible.
WALTERS: Restrictions are there and everyone knows that it’s a dark cloud over everyone. But I think everyone’s making the best of it. Customers have really showed up and supported us.
Suzie Fritz sells hand-made, natural soaps. She’s seen an uptick in interest for her products.
SUZIE FRITZ: I’ve done better in sales this year than I have in the past years. Go figure…
PAUL BUTLER: Do you think it might be related to COVID-19?
SUZIE FRITZ: I think some of it is because that way they know that it’s all natural and they, you know, they know that it’s safe. Not knowing where some of the products come from overseas or whatever. I think people are just leery of buying stuff overseas right now.
Market farmer Michael Skowera and his wife are unloading cucumbers, kohlrabi, and a handful of specialty jams from a well-loved van. Large letters on the side spell out “Four Sisters”—named for their now grown daughters. Sales are up for them too at the Mendota Market, but that doesn’t make up for the produce they weren’t able to sell while they waited for the green-light from Illinois.
SKOWERA: We lost sales because the vegetables are planted before the lockdown came in. So you have stuff that’s wasted because it’s going to be ready to go, but there’s no market for it.
Some of the regulars still aren’t coming out for the market, but many are finding ways to get a hold of fresh produce from the farm.
AUDIO: [SOUND OF LISA AND MAX WITH CUSTOMERS]
Lisa Salandar and her son Max stand in front of a pickup truck under a blue canopy. Unpopped popcorn, new potatoes, bags of wheat berries, and a large container of beets spill out over their table.
LISA SALANDER: I think we’ve had more interest. People, especially asking, like, would we be able to come out and buy directly from you, even if we needed it midweek? So I would say there’s more of an interest in, you know, the locally grown produce this year.
Vendors at the Mendota Farmers Market start breaking down and reloading their unsold produce into trucks and vans after four hours. Bryon Walters counted 246 visitors today—an average of one a minute. He’s happy with that…though he says he’s glad to be out here every week regardless of how many come.
WALTERS: It promotes fresh most local products, farm to the table…I have a lot of honey products. Versus selling in a store, I do it at the farmer’s markets. It’s just fun thing to do on a Saturday morning in the summertime. Beats cutting the grass. [LAUGHTER]
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Paul Butler in Mendota, Illinois.