WAYNESBORO – It’s not going to be a regular Saturday at the farmers market for those who go to either Waynesboro or Staunton.
There’s no mingling. No hanging around to chat and catch up. The main goal is to get healthy, local produce to customers who need it and then leave. COVID-19 has drastically changed the area’s farmers markets.
Megan Marshall, the director of food access for Project Grows, had to come up with an entirely new business plan for the Waynesboro and North Augusta farmers markets. The nonprofit Project Grows runs both.
About six weeks ago, the Waynesboro Farmers Market, which is held at Constitution Park, started with an online ordering system where customers could pick-up their orders.
According to Tom Brenneman, director of Project Grows, the sales are down from last year, mainly due to the challenges of the marketplace. Come Saturday, the Waynesboro market will be able to have in-person shopping with a variety of rules in accordance to the governor’s order. That means face masks, social distancing, hand sanitizing and more.
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Vendors will be set up around the perimeter of the pavilion at Constitution Park and customers are not permitted to enter the pavilion. Each customer must approach vendor booths from the outside of the pavilion space and there will be barriers placed in front of vendor booths. Customers are also asked to refrain from touching any items at the market.
But, they are trying to keep fresh, local healthy foods accessible to the public.
Last year, both the Waynesboro and Augusta County markets made $105,000 in total gross sales in local foods with vendors in the community. Brenneman said they will be nowhere near that this year.
Project Grows assigns a fee on the gross sales of vendors to support market coordination. The fee supports the cost to produce the market, insure the market, advertise and market the market, Brenneman said.
“The modest fee contributes in part to staff time to facilitate and coordinate the market, fuel the van to shuttle supplies around that support market logistics and more,” he said. “The modest goal is to break even with costs to run the market based on vendor fees from gross sales.”
Due to COVID-19, the costs or moving the markets online and the amount of staff time that has been devoting to changing their business model, has been significant, Brenneman said.
“It’s a labor of love to the mission for food access; to build a sustainable local food system and to ensure safety for all in this unique moment in time,” he said. “Customers taking an active part in the markets is helpful to meet all these goals for the viability of food access for the community at large, the viability of the market for vendors and healthy local foods being part of SAW residents lives.”
Project Grows is able to use Constitution Park free of charge with their partnership with the city of Waynesboro. The city is a co-sponsor of the farmers market.
The North Augusta Farmers Market has been delayed in opening. It’s held at the Augusta County Government Center outside pavilion. The market has been suspended until July 1, with hopes of offering an in-person market sometime in July.
“I would just say on behalf of Project Grows, we really appreciate the support of the community for their farmers market,” Brenneman said. “We’re privileged to be able to be a facilitator and coordinator for that, and the community support of us to do that is great. But the patience of customers and vendors, and the collaborative work to do this together … I can’t say enough about how much we appreciate that and how it’s really telling that of our ability to get through a public health pandemic and to be a healthy community.”
The Staunton Farmers Market is also operating similarly to Waynesboro.
According to the Staunton Farmers Market Manager Tom Womack, the market is a municipal market under the city of Staunton, but it’s run by a market committee made up of vendors and customers. They don’t receive outside money from anyone and work closely with the city manager, who approves rules of the market each year.
This year, the market started out as an online ordering system where customers could pick up their orders. In the past few weeks, they’ve allowed for in-person shopping with similar restrictions as to what the Waynesboro market has put in place. Vendors are required to wear masks and use hand sanitizer. The market has asked customers to also wear masks.
They’ve turned the vendors that usually face the sidewalk around to the parking lot and the back row of the market. There’s space between each vendor for social distancing and the second row has been pushed back to the Stratton Building.
“It’s a fairly large area in between the two rows for customers,” he said.
Customers are still able to order online with some vendors. But on Saturdays when the market is held, customers can go up, preferably with a mask, and ask for what they want. Some vendors don’t allow the customers to touch anything.
Womack said they have about 30 vendors at this time and it’s only food vendors — either produce or other food goods. He’s waiting to add the craft vendors, following the guidelines from the governor on farmers markets.
The market’s total gross sales last year was around $500,000. Womack said that 2019 was also a record year for the market. This year, they’ve also canceled the Wednesday market, which was supposed to be held at Gypsy Hill Park for the first time.
“I don’t believe we will come close to matching that, since the first seven weeks were drastically down due to the pandemic and we have no idea what the future brings,” he said.
But, last Saturday the market did $1,500 dollars more than the same time last year.
“The customers are loving it,” Womack said. “They’re getting the chance to get their fresh local food out in an outdoor environment, they don’t have to go it into the grocery store.”
Womack is a bit saddened that this is how the market has to go, but is glad it can operate in some capacity. Saturday market days aren’t the same.
“When people come down to the market they’re there to buy food,” he said.
Last year, and in previous years, downtown was abuzz with people going in and out of the market, buying food, eating treats and drinking coffee. Now, he says that it’s in and out. He doesn’t want crowds.
“We’re asking them to get what they want and then leave and not hang around,” he said.
Womack has been involved with the market for over two decades and been the manager for 15 years. This year is his last year.
“This is not the way I want to go out, that’s for sure. I would much prefer a normal market, but it is what it is,” he said.
For more information about the two markets visit the Staunton Farmers Market on Facebook or at StauntonFarmersMarket.org. It’s open from 7 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.
More information on the Waynesboro Farmers Market on Facebook or at ProjectGrows.org. It’s open from 9 a.m. to noon at Constitution Park every Saturday.
More information regarding the North Augusta Farmers Market can be found on Facebook.
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You can reach reporter Laura Peters at email@example.com. Follow her @peterslaura.