Jan Goranson helps Deborah Freedman of Portland as she selects vegetables from Goranson Farm at the Portland Farmers Market on Wednesday. Previously held in Monument Square, the mid-week market has moved to Deering Oaks, where there’s more space.  Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Most outdoor farmers markets in Maine, always popular places to shop and socialize, are opening for the season in May, some in new, far more spacious spots to allow for social distancing, and all with elaborate protocols in place to keep the coronavirus at bay.

The state considers the markets essential services, so winter markets – and now outdoor markets – have been allowed to operate despite the pandemic.

To assure safety for farmers and customers, and comply with state directives, outdoor markets are instituting a host of measures, from re-configuring market layouts and requiring masks to eliminating cash and sterilizing SNAP tokens. Those rules will affect more than just shopping procedures: They’ll change the get-to-know-your-farmer vibe.

“The farmers markets are no longer going to be this social gathering that everybody has come to love,” said Mark Guzzi, market manager for the Orono Farmers’ Market and owner of Peacemeal Farm in Dixmont. “It’s going to be much more of a food distribution location. The vendors will come down and provide the food in the most efficient manner possible.”

Still, Guzzi and other organizers of some of the state’s 130 farmers markets said they believe customers will maintain that special connection with the people who grow and raise their food, and may feel safer shopping outdoors than in enclosed grocery store aisles.

Moreover, the production chain from field to table is far shorter for produce at a farmers market than that at the grocery store, so fewer hands touch the food. Also, organizers say, the markets could benefit from the demand for local food spurred by the pandemic, which has seen shortages of many supermarket items.

Many markets are slower in early spring, hitting their stride when the first highly coveted crops, asparagus and strawberries, begin to come in. The gradual rollout gives organizers time to fine-tune their systems.

“More than half of vendors haven’t been to farmers markets since COVID-19 started,” said Jimmy DeBiasi, director of programs at the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets. “There is going to be a bit of learning involved.” A webinar that the federation hosted in late April to demonstrate “what best practices look like in action” attracted 57 people, he said.

Mary Polewaczyk of Cumberland settles up with Jodie Jordan while shopping at Alewives Brook Farm’s station at the Portland Farmers Market on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

DeBiasi knows of no summer farmers markets that are closing outright because of the complicated logistics required to combat the coronavirus. “Markets are a main source of livelihood and income for a number of small and medium-size farmers in Maine,” he pointed out.

But he and others did know of some older farmers who have withdrawn from markets entirely this season, as well as farm families that plan to send a reduced crew to ring up radishes, pack peas or stack strawberries, as a way to lessen their potential exposure to the virus.

In normal times, a vibrant, bustling farmers market helps attract customers, so fewer vendors would be cause for concern. Markets typically allot booths for summer markets over the previous winter, and many have rules requiring that farmers show up at every market of the season or face penalties. Such rules have been relaxed this year to let farmers decide for themselves their own comfort levels.

Some markets will open later than usual because of the pandemic. The Wells’ Farmers Market was scheduled to open at its new home on Route 1, outside Bo-Mar Hall, on May 20. Market manager Cassie Perrault, who also owns Cassie’s Canning Cabinet, is just hoping it’ll be able to open by mid-June.

“Wells is pretty much shut down at this point, and they don’t want to attract tourists,” she said.

In a usual year, customers at the weekly Wednesday market, which has some 15 vendors, are “90 percent tourists,” she said. This year, the vendors hope to capitalize on the heightened demand for local food. “We are excited for the season to start, whenever it starts,” Perrault said.

Mackenzie McMillin of Portland makes selections from Meadowood Farm’s station at the Portland Farmers Market at Deering Oaks. “I didn’t know that it was happening. I was driving by and saw the trucks,” said McMillin, who ended up leaving with armfuls of plants. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Several summer markets have found new, safer – larger – quarters.

Portland’s weekly Wednesday market, usually held in Monument Square, has moved to much roomier Deering Oaks. The Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust Farmers’ Market at Crystal Spring Farm, considered one of the prettiest, liveliest markets in the state, opens Saturday in its new temporary home at Brunswick High School, where, “the extensive parking lots … allow for vendors and customers to spread out more,” according to a news release.

In Orono, the market normally sets up on land owned by the University of Maine. Because that campus has been closed, the market’s locale was in question. Earlier this week, though, Guzzi learned that if conditions don’t worsen, the market could return on June 1, two weeks after its usual start date.

Spreading out is key. In Orono, the winter farmers market moved outside in March and has been held there since. It’s a tricky spot in the best of times, Guzzi said, “barely big enough with terrible parking and terrible access.” Controlling lines during the pandemic has become his biggest headache.

“A fairly short line of, say, five people ends up being 30 feet long. Let’s say you had 20 vendors, an average of five customers spaced 6 feet apart, well you’ve got 600 feet of lines,” he said. “That’s two football fields.”

For Carolyn Snell, of Snell Family Farm in Buxton and chair of the Portland Farmers’ Market, it’s the nuanced public relations message she is trying to convey that she finds a real challenge. Snell reported that the first outdoor market on April 26 was a success, with booths at least 30 and as much as 50 feet apart giving “an open and safe” feeling; in a normal year, they would be just 6 to 10 feet apart.

“Please stay home,” Snell said, explaining that message. “But if you need food and plants, which are essential things, come to the market. I am not trying to get everyone off their couch and to the market. I am trying to match farmers who have been working for sometimes more than a year to grow things with people who need food and plants.”

“I feel quite a heavy burden to myself, my crew members, my customers and my fellow vendors to keep us safe,” she added. “My name is on the paper with the city, and I wouldn’t have signed that paper if I felt I was putting anyone in danger. Selling mint plants is not that important to me.”

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