N.C. Farm Stands find answers for safer operation during COVID-19

by | May 18, 2020

As many of North Carolina’s produce stands and farmers markets geared up for the spring and summer season this year, there were a lot of questions facing farmers and others who operate those markets. This big question about how to operate in the era of COVID-19, led to lots of other questions.

“What should we do?” “What shouldn’t we do?” “How do we go about it?” “Should we wear face coverings?… what about gloves?… and do gloves really help?” “Will we still let customers choose their own produce, or should we only do pre-orders with curbside pick-up or drive-thrus?” “How can we make customers feel comfortable and safe?” “How to do help them follow safety guidelines?” “Can we keep customers six feet apart?” “Will they understand?” “Should we even try?”

The list could go on. Fortunately, it seems there’s a payoff for farmers (and anyone else who operates a produce stand) who figure out answers. Farm-fresh food may be more popular this spring as people look for food straight from the source. Many food shoppers are also hoping to find a setting that is less crowded than grocery stores. That’s good news for those selling produce at roadside markets or larger markets with multiple vendors. Even the guy selling strawberries from the tailgate of a pick-up truck could benefit from the heightened interest in locally-grown food.

But even the smallest of operations should be taking extra precautions because of COVID-19. Dr. Ben Chapman helped put together and publish some guidance for farm stands. He’s a professor at N.C. State and a cooperative extension specialist in consumer and retail food safety.

“Its hard to say this all works for everybody in the same way, but the number one reminder is that the number one way people get sick (with COVID-19) is interacting with people,” Chapman said. “In a farm stand setting, my number one goal is to figure out how do I reduce my interaction with people and how do my customers reduce interaction with each other.”

Depending on the size of the farm stand, reducing interaction may be easier at some places than others. Chapman recommends increasing signage to help guide customers. He also says workers should be wearing face coverings, providing hand sanitizer and/or washing stations and also cleaning surfaces regularly.

“It absolutely is about managing people. Grocery stores and roadside stands have had to figure out what to do,” Chapman said. “Capacity is hard because there’s no fire code about how many people can be in your farm stand.”

Chapman said it may help to put up signs encouraging customers to think about capacity and possibly waiting outside until fewer customers are shopping. Many stand operators have found solutions by taking orders and offering only a drive-thru or curbside pick-up. Some are offering no-contact payment through online programs that transfer money. Others have designated a one-way flow for shoppers moving through the stand – of course with marks along the way to help people keep six feet apart.

Cooperative extension offices and other organizations across the state have helped in various ways. Some extension agents have been fielding questions and providing advice. Karen Blaedow in Henderson County hosted a video chat to provide guidance to local farmers markets, and she wrote an article about how they’re implementing changes. The extension office also created, made and distributed signs about COVID-19 best management practices and distributed six signs to each of the county’s four markets. Those posted signs should help educate customers on the new policies on the markets. Agent Renay Knapp made 62 masks for farmers/vendors to use at the local markets. Appalachian Sustainability Agriculture Project (ASAP) donated a gallon of hand sanitizer to each of the markets as well.

Mills River Farm Market is one of four that received safety guidance from the Henderson County Cooperative Extension Center. This picture posted to Facebook provides an update on extra safety measures in place for this season.

ASAP has also created two farmers markets in Asheville specicifically to help farmers/vendors safely sell products at this time. They were established from the ground up with COVID-19 precautions in mind. The Buncombe County cooperative extension office also received 500 cloth Hanes masks from N.C. Emergency Management. Those masks are being distributing to area farmers markets, primarily for vendors to utilize.

Elena Rogers, a cooperative extension agent based in Lenior, said she’s heard from several local farmers about safety measures. Fortunately, she said she heard from many of them early – by the end of March.

“We need to be doing so many things on so many different levels,” Rogers said. “I think our farms have been very good about doing what works best for them, whether it’s more parking or creating a staging area where people can wait.”

She’s gotten questions about how farms can get personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer. She even fielded one call that was a bit funny.

“I’ve gotten a call from a farmer who said ‘how can I keep my grandfather from shaking hands?'”

That question came from a younger farmer who was worried about the social aspect of his farm stand and whether it would endanger the health of his grandfather who has farmed for generations. Rogers said they may even need a sign banning handshakes. It’s a bit funny to think about but also a serious concern.

“We have advised farms to use new containers this year instead of recycled containers. This is not the time to do that [recycling] this year,” Rogers said. “Also, even if your farm is open, the packing area or the fields may not be open to the public. You may have a farm stand, but be sure you’re careful about who is coming in and out of the packing area or fields.”

Rogers is also starting to think about how warmer temperatures will affect wearing PPE and whether it can be comfortably worn. She’s begun to look at whether face shields may be an option instead of cloth face masks.

“I’m starting to think about if you can wear a face covering in 90 degree weather,” Rogers said.

Thinking ahead is definitely something farm stands are already doing and need to continue doing. Farmers, other operators and customers should expect to continue with safety adjustments for weeks and months to come.

“This isn’t just a 2020 issue,” Chapman said. “We’re going to be dealing with this next year unless there’s some miracle of a 100% coverage of a vaccine.”