Ah, spring! Fruits, veggies and — social distancing

Across Illinois, farmers market managers are trying to figure out how to operate while dealing with the coronavirus.

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Chicago’s largest farmers market, Green City Market located in Lincoln Park, provides a marketplace for purchasing variety of produce.

With a statewide stay-at-home order in place, the Green City Market in Lincoln Park may not look like it did last spring. For now, at least, farmers are making home deliveries.

Victor Hilitski/Sun-Times file

You’re unlikely to be able to pick up locally sourced toilet paper or artisanal hand sanitizer there, but expect to see farmers markets sprouting up across the city and beyond in the coming weeks.

They just might not look quite like you remember from years past.

“We’re recommending that the market be more of an in-and-out market, rather than a community gathering place,” said Natalie Kenny Marquez, president of the Illinois Farmers Market Association. “Get in and get what you need and [don’t] bring the whole family with you because you’re not going to do that at the grocery store either right now.”

There are about 340 farmers markets across Illinois, Marquez said.

This is the time — as asparagus spears begin to poke out of the earth — when farmers market managers are typically making final plans for how many and which vendors they’re expecting. Several said they’re still hoping to provide the familiar fruits, vegetables, meats and other goods — albeit perhaps a little later in the season and with social distancing guidelines in place.

“We’ve had to put everything on pause because, at this point, we do not know when we will be allowed to be back outside,” said Melissa Flynn, executive director of Green City Market, which has outdoor locations in Lincoln Park and the West Loop, as well as an indoor market at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

For now, Green City has done a quick pivot, creating an app that allows customers to order online and have farmers, working together, deliver goods to their homes in trucks.

“We sold out our first delivery day [April 1] in fewer than 12 hours. Our second delivery day [April 8] was sold out within 12 hours of that. We’re working on increasing our capacity,” Flynn said this week.

The big sellers?

“Lots of greens, potatoes. Apples were a huge seller, for sure. Meat, eggs were in tremendous demand,” Flynn said. And right now, she said, there’s no one-box limit on eggs as there is in many supermarkets.

As the season progresses, Green City is planning to offer delivery twice a week, Flynn said.

Myra Gorman, manager of the Evanston Downtown Farmers Market, said her organization is still hoping to have stalls for customers to visit. She said she’s been emailing her vendors almost daily.

“I’ve encouraged all of my vendors to think of safer ways they can set up their booths — safer for them, safer for their customers. Have an entrance in, [and] an exit out, have only one person at the payment table,” Gorman said, noting that nothing, including a start date, has been finalized.

They’re even considering a “drive-thru” market, Gorman said.

Old Town Farmers Market in Old Town.

Shoppers at the Old Town Farmers Market in 2018.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file

The focus, though, this year is on the small-scale farmers, many of whom are struggling to survive with the sudden closure of thousands of restaurants across the region.

“It’s incredibly important right now for the farmers to know they have a marketplace,” Flynn said. “Right now, they are at that critical plant, don’t plant part of their season. This uncertainty is really a challenge for farmers because you have one shot to plant. You’ll just miss the entire season if you don’t plant at the right time.”

And while demand for delivered produce has been strong, it can’t match the thousands of customers who stroll through markets on any given day, Flynn said.

Marquez said her organization is pulling data from their farmers to see how coronavirus is affecting their livelihoods.

“The feedback that we’re getting is that, ‘We will have to close our farm if there is no market’ or ‘This is my only source of income’ or ‘We would see a major decrease in revenue if it weren’t for the farmers markets,’” Marquez said.

And while it’s sad that farmers markets might not be the vibrant social gathering places they have been in seasons past, they are still vital, she said.

“We really want to make sure our farmers are continued to be supported,” she said “They are extremely essential to our local food system, and markets are essential to our local economy.”

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