Jars of honey glowed in the sun. Sweet cherries – the prized survivors of a spring freeze – peeked from small paper bags. Frills of red and green leaf lettuce looked festive in their wooden crates. And Palisade Farmers Market patrons came in droves to the social and retail heart of this small town for the first farmers market of the season on Sunday.
In a community known for events that feature downhome fun, marketgoers were undeterred by the fencing and the roped-off, one-way corridors; the signs recommending masks and distancing; the ubiquitous hand-sanitizer dispensers; and the unfamiliarity of rules enforcers in orange T-shirts.
Buoyed by blue skies and zippy jazz playing over a loudspeaker, around 1,600 attendees filled their baskets and bags over a four-hour period.
What these happy shoppers couldn’t see behind this rite of summer was the lobbying and the months of planning that took place at state, county and community levels to be able to allow farmers markets across Colorado to open during a pandemic. To make that happen, markets had to shape-shift to become more like grocery shopping destinations and a little less like social outings.
If the markets hadn’t adapted, they could have been lumped in with special events, like concerts and festivals, rather than grouped with essential-service businesses like grocery stores, Colorado Agriculture Commissioner Kate Greenberg said.
“We can still have connection and a sense of community at the markets,” Greenberg explained. “But we have to just be doing it in a different way.”
The farmers markets did not need to be saved simply as a popular amenity for locavores. They represent a crucial revenue source for local farmers like the one sporting a T-shirt Sunday that proclaimed “I Farm, You Eat.”
Last year, Colorado farmers markets had $4.25 million in sales of fruits, vegetables, meat, flowers and plants and $8 million in sales of packaged and prepared foods, according to Brian Coppom, executive director of Boulder County Farmers Markets. Farmers who had already been slammed by the loss of revenue when the novel coronavirus shut down in-house dining at restaurants, would have been decimated if they couldn’t get their products to consumers via the popular open-air markets this summer.
From Durango to Steamboat Springs, from Greeley to Salida, and from Boulder to Denver Union Station, the 100 farmers markets in Colorado are now tiptoeing into a season of produce and pandemic with the same hope and trepidation — and with a very mixed bushel of rules to keep vendors and shoppers safe.
Overall, farmers markets aficionados can no longer just load up the dogs, the kids and grandma and show up expecting to taste the cherries, to feel the ripeness of peaches, or to riffle through bundles of kale. They can’t tap their toes in front of a live band or hang out for a picnic lunch.
In areas such as Mesa County, where virus numbers have remained low since COVID-19 made an appearance in March, rules are noticeably laxer. In locations in the Denver metro area, where thousands cram into a corridor of booths on market days, strict reservation-only shopping has become a pandemic necessity.
Rosalind May, executive director of the Colorado Farmers Market Association, said she hopes that farmers market visitors will focus on what is available and not so much on what is missing from past years. She suggests a new point of view about the markets.
Look at it as “this is where you go to do your grocery shopping,” she advised. Go with a list in hand and purchase all the produce, meats, dairy products, grains and other local foods possible.