Along with fresh tulips and long, sunny days, a stroll through the farmers market is one of the most anticipated signs of spring. For many Colorado families, street markets conjure up images of jam-packed streets, live music, balloon animals, food samples—and maybe even a cream cheese smothered dog from Biker Jim’s if you frequent the vendors on Old South Pearl Street.
There are more than one hundred farmers markets spread across Colorado. Since they are considered essential businesses, many are reopening in May and June with modified operations designed to encourage social distancing.
The Metro Denver Farmers’ Market opened the first weekend in May at two of its usual locations: Southwest Plaza and the Highlands Ranch Town Center. At both sites, moderate-sized groups of regulars—approximately 250 on Saturday and 150 to 200 on Sunday—showed up in masks, and hurried through a series of tents spaced 10 feet apart.
Vendors wearing masks and gloves were separated from shoppers by empty tables and sold prepackaged items such as beef, cheese, and bread.
“We’re all-Colorado, so there’s not much produce this early in the season,” explains Toni Starner, marketing director of Metro Denver Farmers’ Market. As more vegetables and fruits become available, consumers will be asked to point at what they want and farmers will bag up the goods with minimal chitchat.
“You’ll find that your market manager is asking you to come in, buy your food, and leave, which is different from what we might be used to,” says Rosalind May, executive director of the Colorado Farmers Market Association, a membership-based organization that supports and promotes our local markets.
Despite some big changes, Starner says opening weekend was a success. Market-goers complied with rules posted on signs lining the streets, and people seemed genuinely excited to be outside supporting Colorado farmers.
The Lowdown on COVID Restrictions
The new protocols at Metro Denver Farmers’ Market are based on a set of guidelines created by the Colorado Farmers Market Association. While individual markets working with their local public health agencies may result in slight variations, there are some general standards shoppers can expect to see at most 2020 markets.
- Vendor Practices – In addition to increased hand washing, most vendors will be required to wear gloves and masks. Many market operators will ask customers to wear masks, too, though they cannot require it. Sick customers and vendors are urged to stay home.
- One-Way Traffic – Markets will have defined entrances and exits prompting one-way traffic. “Shoppers won’t be able to double back,” says Brian Coppom, executive director of Boulder County Farmers Markets (BCFM).
- Limited Numbers – BCFM plans to open two in-person markets—in Boulder and Longmont—by the end of May, and its Lafayette and Denver markets should be up and running in mid-June. But the number of shoppers will be limited to one person for every 100 square feet of market space. “In Boulder, that will be about 120 people on the street at any given time,” Coppom says.
- Cards vs. Cash – In a big break from tradition, farmers are being encouraged to take credit cards, though cash will still be accepted at most markets. “There are no coins being handed back,” says Starner, noting that some vendors at the Metro Denver Farmers’ Markets have boxes set out for touch-free exact-cash-only payments.
- No Strolling – Food vendors will be prioritized in 2020, and arts and craft vendors will be extremely limited or nonexistent. “The message is that we care about you, so we need you to get what you need and move on,” May explains.
Should Parents Bring Kids to the Market?
Quite simply, no. A lot of the fun stuff won’t be available. Markets across Colorado are temporarily discontinuing music, food-court seating, and kid-specific activities. Some markets will continue their prepared foods programs, but with a focus on pre-packed to-go meals.
“It’s not that kids aren’t allowed at the markets,” May clarifies. “Some parents will need to bring their children, and that’s OK.” But if childcare is available, use it.
“Try to find other ways to connect your kids with the market,” May suggests. Children can help unload and wash inventory at home, and cooking fresh food as a family is always a fun, hands-on way to boost the farm-to-table connection.
Another Way to Shop
Some markets are implementing online ordering platforms to allow for pre-ordering and curbside pickup.
In April, for example, Boulder County Farmers Markets opened with a virtual market, BCFM2Go. Initially, the program was targeted at food access customers—those receiving government food assistance—but it has since been made available to the general public.
Customers can fill an online cart from the produce currently available, then pick up their weekly stock curbside at the Boulder County Fairgrounds in Longmont. In the coming weeks, the market will expand its pickup locations to Boulder, Denver, and Lafayette.
South Pearl Street Farmers Market, which still plans to open its in-person market on May 17, will offer a CSA-style box, giving shoppers the option to pre-select items online and pick up produce curbside on Sundays.
Change is Tricky. Here’s Some Good Stuff to Anticipate:
“Even under this abbreviated format, shoppers at our markets will still get some of that people interaction they crave during short conversations with farmers,” Coppom points out. Plus, on-street markets are outdoors. And who isn’t looking for a great excuse to spend time outside right now? Even for a brief walk around the market.
Many markets offer pantry items in addition to fresh produce, meat, eggs, and cheese. “I think it’ll be an exciting thing for people to realize how much of their shopping they can actually do at the market,” May says.
Before heading out, check your local market’s website and social media accounts for any last-minute updates or changes. The 2020 Colorado Farm Fresh Directory, available online and in print later in May, is a comprehensive list of farmers markets, roadside stands, and farms/ranches that sell directly to the public.
May asks consumers to be patient this year. “The farmers growing our food are taking a risk, just like grocery store workers,” she says. At the farmers’ market, and everywhere else, a little kindness and compassion really does go a long way.