Now that the county is opening up, west county’s many farmers markets are looking forward to increased business, balancing the requirements for providing a socially distanced environment while still attracting customers to support local farmers.

Sebastopol Farmers’ Market: New online ordering system and curbside pickup along with continued social distancing vigilance

Carla Rosin, market manager for the Sebastopol Farmers’ Market, said early on during shelter in place, shoppers were often outnumbered by vendors, but now that the weather is nicer, more people are coming out.

“Also, some people are just over staying at home,” she said.

The biggest change for the Sebastopol Farmers’ Market is that it has added an online ordering system. Farmers add their products to the Sebastopol Farmers’ Market website by midnight on Thursday and shoppers have until Saturday at 3 p.m. to place their orders. On Sunday, at the beginning of the farmers market, volunteers gather the orders into boxes that shoppers can collect curbside.

“It’s important for people to know that we have a curbside system,” Rosin said. “They can just pull into the parking lot, text me, and we'll have somebody ready with their order. They don’t even have to get out of the car.”

There are several reasons to use the curbside system, Rosin said. First, of course, is safety especially for people who are older or immunocompromised or just feeling cautious. But there’s also another reason.

“By ordering online, you’re essentially reserving your favorite things — like those strawberries that you love that are usually gone by noon — they’ll be there for you because they’ve been set aside for you at the beginning of the market,” she said.

To help with social distancing, she also urged people to drop by the market a little later.

“Right now, everyone is showing up in the first hour and then they leave by 11:30 a.m., then the market is pretty much dead after that. So you have mobs of people and then nothing. So if people are looking for a less crowded market experience, where you don’t have to stand in a line, I suggest they come a little later.”

Rosin said the strict social distancing rules the market put into effect a few months ago are still in place. Because of social distancing requirements for vendors, the market has had to spread out into the West America parking lot, and Rosin urges all customer to try to stay six feet away from one another. Also, customers are no longer allowed to touch the produce — you point to what you want, and the farmers package it up for you.

“We're also very focused on making sure that everybody has a face covering when they enter the market,” Rosin said, noting that they had volunteers posted at both entrances to ensure that anyone entering the market had a mask. 

She said they get pushback about the mask requirement now and then.

“It's been great in some ways and then it's also been a little nerve-wracking in others because there's so many people, especially with the lifting of restrictions, that think that things are going to go back to normal and don't understand why it's necessary to have a face covering at all times in the market,” she said.

“Especially since it’s outdoors, people just don’t understand why masks are necessary — I mean, most do but not everyone — it’s partly that and it's partly the conspiracy theorists, and then also partly the people that think this is all a hoax  that make it super challenging.”

How does she deal with this?

“I basically tell them that within the market, even if you don't agree with it, just go along with it so we can stay open. Please, please help us. And most of them are okay with that approach,” she said.

Occidental Community Farmers’ Market

Market manager Chris Santana said that the Occidental Community Farmers Market is on schedule to open on Friday, June 5. It will be the 18th season for the farmers market in Occidental, the second year under new community management.

This is Santana’s first year as market manager. Michael Stusser, owner of Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary and chair of the board that runs the Occidental Community Farmers’ Market, describes Santana this way:

“Chris is passionate about sustainable agriculture as a tool for tending the land and building community. Chris lives and works at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, manages his own small herd of goats there and also helps herd sheep out at Bodega Pastures, makers of the beautiful wool and wares you see at the market. “

As an essential food business, the market has had to put in place a slew of new rules because of the pandemic.

According to Santana, “There's a whole list of protocols to follow: the general social distancing rules, and we’re asking everybody to have a face mask and to really try to be in and out as quickly as possible. We're trying to discourage people from lingering and gathering too much, which is kind of unfortunate because historically this market in particular has been as much of a community gathering as a market.”

Santana said that, as with the Sebastopol farmers market, customers will no longer have direct access to the produce.

“Vendors will have display items for what's on sale and then they’ll select from their back stock, whatever the customer orders, and then they'll go pack that and pass it back to the customer,” he said.

Booths are required to have two people: one to deal the produce and one to handle the cash.

“There’s also creative solutions for dealing with cash: using mobile cash and cashless payments when possible, or having buckets for people who have exact change. They just drop it in and that way vendors don't even have to touch the money.”

Santana said the market is considering an online system, but doesn’t have one in mind yet.

“We’re going to reach out to the community to see if there's a demand for that … potentially for our craft vendors or produce vendors who are unable to attend the market for due to health concerns,” he said.

Santana said most of the vendors from last year have signed up again, as well as some new ones. A few elderly farmers are staying home because for health reasons.

Despite the inevitable tensions related to the pandemic, Santana said he’s looking forward to the season.

“We're very excited to be able to provide this service to the community, providing healthy, locally sourced food and a way of supporting our local farmers.”

Forestville Farmers Market

Farmer Mary Rand, the founder and original market manager of the Forestville Farmers Market, is returning to the position this year in what may prove to be the most challenging year for the 7-year-old market yet.

The Forestville Farmers Market will open this year on Tuesday, July 7, in Forestville’s rustic downtown park (next to the drugstore/laundromat). It will run every Tuesday evening from 4 to 7 p.m. until Sept. 29.

Rand, who ran the market from 2013 to 2017, said that even before COVID-19 hit, market attendance had been slipping, and she had big plans for this year — music performances and other community events —but all of these have now been canceled due to the pandemic.

The farmers, the main attraction, will still be there, include Ortiz Family Farm and Rojas from the Central Valley, RLR Farm from Pocket Canyon and Rand’s own farm Hidden Lake Farm. In addition, there will be prepared foods from the Green Grocer, Latta’s Indian Food, Edna’s hot dogs and others.

The same rules that apply to the other local farmers markets, apply here. The Forestville Farmers Market will require people to wear masks, encourage social distancing and discourage shoppers from lingering on site to chat. There will be a single entrance and single exit to keep people moving in one direction, and there will also be hand sanitizer strategically place around the market. 

Rand is happy to be running the market again, but she said there are a lot of unknowns about how it’s going to work this year. Will there be more people or fewer people, for example? More shoppers because it’s an open air market that’s less crowded than some larger nearby farmers markets or fewer shoppers because a lot of people will still be leery about venturing out into public places.

As one of the vendors, Rand wonders how she’ll attract people to her stall, given that the main market come-on she uses — offering passersby tastes of her juicy peaches or plums — is no longer allowed.

“And 99.9% of the time, I would get a sale out of that,” she said. “Right now, I’m not sure how it’s gonna go this year because we can’t do any sampling.”

She hopes the intervening month will give people time to get used to going out again.

“Hopefully by July people will feel comfortable enough to come out and support their local food system,” she said.

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