For many, the open-air farmers markets of Chatham, Harwich, and Orleans are synonymous with the bounty and vibrancy of summer days. The hum of greetings and conversations floats above crates of fresh eggs, buckets of lavender and garden flowers, and rows of bright carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes.
This summer, local farmers markets look a little different, with spaces reconfigured to align with COVID-19 rules and regulations. Considered an essential service under the order issued by Governor Charlie Baker on March 23, local farmers markets are allowed to remain open but must follow state-issued regulations. The regulations, released on April 27 by Massachusetts Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel, include new rules such as limits on customer capacities (no more than 10 to 15 customers per 1,000 square feet), distancing requirements, restrictions on food handling, and the elimination of tasting samples.
This spring, farmers market organizers in Chatham, Orleans, and Harwich spent weeks rethinking and restructuring market spaces to ensure the well-being of vendors and community members. While each farmers market has adapted guidelines to suit its locale, all of the markets adhere to local health department regulations and protocols set forth by the U.S. and Massachusetts Departments of Agriculture.
The Chatham Farmers Market began its 10th year on Tuesday, June 2 with many new protocols in place. Drawing between 1,000 and 2,000 customers each week, the market takes place each Tuesday from 3 to 6 p.m. through October at 1652 Main St., in front of the Local Color Art Gallery adjacent to Ocean State Job Lot. The 3,000-square-foot footprint of Chatham’s market space allows approximately 30 patrons to be inside the market simultaneously. Customers waiting to enter the market are required to wear masks and to social distance. At the market entrance, volunteers greet customers with hand sanitizer and offer masks and gloves. Within the market, arrows and barriers help guide patrons one-way around the venue. Vendors wear masks behind a plastic face shield or wear masks behind plastic tabletop barriers. Only vendors may handle products and patrons are not allowed to bring reusable bags.
While the Chatham Farmers Market has space for 25 vendors, this summer the market will feature an average of 12 Cape and off-Cape vendors. In addition to spacing requirements, circumstances of the pandemic and new regulations like the prohibition of tasting samples have impacted vendor participation.
“If you’re a salsa or a jam and jelly vendor, tasting samples help drive sales,” says Chatham Farmers Market Manager Kathy Sanders, who owns Thyme After Thyme. “The absence of tasting samples can be a deterrent to some.”
Even with new policies in place aimed at curbing the socialization that is intrinsic to farmers markets, Sanders notes that the markets continue to foster meaningful connections — at a safe distance, of course.
“There’s a special camaraderie there,” says Sanders. “It’s that connection between farmers and fishermen and their families and community members that truly defines and makes the market.”
Orleans Farmers Market board member and The Optimal Kitchen owner Heather Bailey echoes Sanders’ sentiments. “While our markets have a different look this summer, in the grand scheme of things, the essence and energy of the market and how it supports local farmers and growers is still there,” Bailey says. “People really respond to that. We’re all seeking some sort of connection and semblance of normalcy.”
The year-round Orleans Farmers Market opened its 26th outdoor season on Saturday, May 23. The market operates out of the Nauset Middle School cafeteria during the winter market from December to April, and operates at 21 Old Colony Way during the summer market from May to November. Drawing between 500 and 800 patrons each week, the market is open every Saturday this summer from 8 a.m. to noon. Bailey notes that the market’s large footprint is valuable in mitigating capacity and social distancing challenges. Patrons are required to wear masks, maintain social distancing, and follow signage designed to guide them through the market along a one-way, clockwise-oriented path. Two designated entrances and exits also help direct traffic flow. Only vendors may handle products, and sawhorses placed in front of some vendor tents serve as physical reminders for patrons to maintain their distance from products and each other. Patrons are allowed to bring their own bags, as long as bags do not touch any surfaces, but dogs are required to stay at home. Orleans Farmers Market president and Checkerberry Farm owner Gretel Norgeot says that this new rule is designed to maintain social distancing.
“Dogs tend to encourage socializing and we forget to distance in the moment,” she says. The market features a different musician each week, but to limit congregating, seating is not provided.
With space for 40 vendors, the Orleans Farmers Market currently features 18 to 20 vendors and expects the number of attending vendors to grow by August. As always, vendors participating in the Orleans Farmers Market are required to grow and produce their horticultural or agricultural products within Barnstable County.
“While the pandemic has impacted some of our vendors’ participation, the small change in vendor numbers reflects how busy some of our vendors are with their own market stands,” says Norgeot. “We have anchor vendors who just have not had time to come to the Orleans market because there is such a demand at their own individual farm stands.”
The uptick in individual farm stand business is indicative of a greater demand for locally-grown fresh food says Bailey.
“The farm-to-table model of a local farm stand or farmers market represents that shorter supply chain, and that’s especially appealing to people right now,” says Bailey. “Buying directly from a local farmer versus a large grocery store greatly reduces the number of hands that food is passing through, making it less vulnerable to exposure.” Norgeot also attributes the increased demand for local, fresh food to families spending more time at home during the pandemic.
“With people spending more time at home, people are gardening more and growing more,” she says. “With renewed appreciation, people are seeking out the healthfulness of locally-grown agriculture and time outdoors.”
Marie Kesten Zahn, director of the Harwich Historical Society, which sponsors and runs the Harwich Farmers Market, agrees. Says Zahn, “We did have many people inquiring about the market as far back as February, calling into the museum to find out when it started. So, from what I can tell, there has definitely been quite the trend in folks seeking out fresh produce and alternatives to supermarkets.”
Now in its 11th season, the Harwich Farmers Market takes place each Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m. on the grounds of the Brooks Academy Museum located at 80 Parallel St. Drawing an average of 200 patrons each week, the market runs through the first week of October.
This summer, the Harwich market began its season on July 2. The delayed start allowed market organizers time to implement safety protocols and to gain the vendor quota needed in order to cover market operation expenses. Says Zahn, “Our plan over the winter was to expand the market and offer additional vendor spaces, however with all of the restrictions and guidelines we wanted to keep it limited this year. In addition, some of our farmers decided to sell their produce at their individual farm stands rather than participate in the larger markets.”
The changes in vendor participation nearly prevented the market from opening. “It was touch and go as to whether we would be able to operate this season,” says Harwich Farmers Market Manager and PhotoJenic Studio owner Jen Clark. “But we wanted to make it happen for our farmers and vendors and community members, and people are genuinely happy to come out and be here.” This summer’s market features local food items, crafts, and a vendor booth dedicated to the scientific research of sharks.
Like its Chatham and Orleans counterparts, the Harwich Farmers Market has new regulations in place to keep vendors and customers healthy. Market organizers have a sanitizing station at the entrance and have configured vendor booths to create a one-way traffic pattern. Patrons and vendors are required to wear masks, and only vendors are permitted to handle products. Clark encourages vendors to pre-package food products in order to minimize handling. With a footprint of less than 1,000 square feet, no more than 10 customers are allowed within the market at one time. No pets are allowed, but customers are permitted to bring reusable bags as long as these bags are handled only by the customer. Zahn notes that vendors’ use of Buy Fresh Buy Local Cape Cod brown paper bags has been well-received.
While the farmers markets of Chatham, Orleans, and Harwich have adopted varying approaches to operating during a pandemic, the markets share a common denominator in how vital they are to local growers and how critical they are as fresh food access points for those in need.
“Access to locally-produced food is critical to the local economy,” says Bailey. “During the pandemic, this has become even more glaringly apparent.” Norgeot notes that in addition to supporting the local economy, farmers markets provide those in need with an essential access point to fresh, nutritious food.
Both the Chatham and Orleans farmers markets participate in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides low-income individuals and families with access to nutritious food. Both markets accept the SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. In Orleans, SNAP customers receive tokens they can use like cash, and can earn bonus dollars on their EBT cards. When an Orleans market SNAP customer swipes $10 on the EBT card, the market gives that customer an additional $10 bonus for shopping at the market. The Orleans Farmers Market also participates in Project Gratitude, sponsored by Sustainable CAPE, which gives participating veterans $10 in fruit and vegetable tokens to use at the market. The Chatham and Orleans markets also accept senior coupons and participate in the Healthy Incentives Program and the Women, Infants, and Children Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program.
Local farmers markets also support vital neighborhood food programs. Each week, the Chatham Farmers Market donates food to the Chatham Food Pantry and to Food 4 Kids, which provides summer meals for students in the Monomoy and Nauset school districts. Similarly, the Orleans Farmers Market participates in Nauset Regional High School garden and food programs, and makes large food donations to local food pantries and the council on aging.
This summer, Elder Services of Cape Cod and the Islands is also helping to bridge the fresh food gap. Beginning Monday, July 20, Elder Services will begin distributing farmers market coupons to low-income individuals who are 60 years of age or older and who reside in the counties of Barnstable, Dukes, or Nantucket. Valued at $25, the coupon booklets are provided in conjunction with a federal grant from the department of agriculture. The coupons will be available on a first-come, first-serve basis and will be provided by contactless pickup, mail, and appointment only. Reservation requests and questions should be directed to the South Dennis Elder Services Office at 508-394-4630.
Ultimately, farmers market organizers across the three towns agree that this summer, perhaps more than ever, the farmers market is a precious commodity, serving as a critical access point to fresh food for those in need, and supporting the local growers and producers who form the bedrock of each community.
“People are grateful to our local farmers, and fishermen, and vendors, and their families. They make the market,” says Sanders. “And, people are happy to have the chance to come together and support our community families. They're the ones who make this peninsula run.”
Harwich Farmers Market
Every Thursday, 3- 6 pm
80 Parallel St., Harwich
Brooks Academy Museum Grounds
Orleans Farmers Market
Every Saturday, 8 a.m. - noon
21 Old Colony Way, Orleans