In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, South Jersey’s farms are teeming with produce. How it gets into the hands of customers may look a little different this year.
By Kate Nicely | April 13, 2020
Additional reporting by Matt Skoufalos
In the Monroeville orchards of Wm. Shober Sons, Inc., employees are trimming trees, peach petals are just starting to shed, and apples are showing pink.
Owner John Hurff anticipates that this year’s crops will be ready about two weeks earlier than usual.
But during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Hurff is worried about how to get his apples and peaches to their regular customers at the Collingswood Farmers Market—and without compromising the health of his market employees.
“I think the demand for fresh fruit will be there, but I don’t know how we’re going to be able to sell it,” Hurff said.
“We also have to consider all the people who work for us at the markets,” he said. “It’s steady contact with people, and we don’t want to take the chance of our help getting sick.”
“I’m just hoping this virus stuff is out of here before we get started this summer,” Hurff said.
It’s a hope shared by farmers and directors of the weekly farmers markets that are a staple feature of the local seasonal economy in South Jersey. If the pandemic stretches on throughout the season, however, organizers and vendors are working through creative solutions for a model that embraces social distancing but still delivers the goods.
“We’re trying to be innovative to support our farms, and if our plan is fully approved, we’ll be able to start the first Saturday of May, as scheduled,” said Collingswood Farmers Market Director David Hodges.
All 28 of last year’s market vendors have renewed for the upcoming 2020 season, Hodges said, but they’ll have to make some adjustments to get their goods in the hands of shoppers this year.
He foresees the Collingswood Farmers Market becoming a drive-through experience, with customers pre-ordering from individual farms and remaining in their vehicles at pick-up.
To manage the flow of crowds and traffic, the market will be scheduled across a few days, times, and vendors to spread out options for shoppers and keep everyone safe.
“It would be wonderful to achieve a schedule to accommodate most [of all] the people who are having a tough time getting to fresh food options,” Hodges said.
Farmers could also try out a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, offering a weekly variety box of their produce. Customers trade the opportunity to pick out specific items for a regular delivery, or “share,” of their favorite farm for the week.
“There will be glitches, but the market will be here to help figure it out,” Hodges said. “I think we’ll get a lot of support from people, and our job is to make this as easy as possible.”
In late March, Kevin Flaim of Flaim Farms in Vineland and Chef Mark Smith of The Tortilla Press in Collingswood began a similar arrangement, with Smith offering his restaurant as a satellite farmstand for Flaim’s produce. Customers place orders by noon on Thursday for a Saturday morning pick-up. So far, it’s working.
“Farms don’t listen to world news,” Flaim said; “they just want to grow and keep on growing. And with the mild weather we’ve been having, we’re looking at green bounty out there.”
To Smith, the arrangement is “a great way to give back, keep at least some of my staff employed, and get this incredibly fresh produce out to the community” in the absence of a farmers market or regular restaurant business.
Westmont Farmers Market Director Keith Guenther said his vendors “are raring to go” amid a strong growing season thus far.
He thinks having the opportunity of a market would boost community morale during the pandemic, if done safely.
After a year of uncertainty in 2019, in which the Westmont Farmers Market was cancelled and then resurrected at a new location, Guenther had planned to increase community involvement at the Westmont Farmers Market by returning it to Haddon Square.
He’d hoped to include a beer garden, weekly demonstrations by small businesses, school choir performances, activities with first responders, and a focus on family participation every Wednesday evening.
Now, he’s working with the township to determine if a market is even possible this year.
Guenther is hopeful the market will continue in some capacity, perhaps opening small, with a drive-through model, but notes that everything about the impact of the pandemic “is so unknown.
“It’s nothing we’ve ever prepared for, and we have no idea how long it’s going to go on,” Guenther said.
Fostering a sense of normalcy
Market directors like Hodges and Guenther are also in talks with each other to possibly combine their efforts.
The Haddonfield Farmers’ Market is currently scouting a location at which to offer curbside service beginning mid-May.
Its director, Ralph Cialella, said the market must “exist and move forward.
“You need to have the farmers grow and survive because that is the future of our nation,” Cialella said.
“But we have to follow the law, and our borough is currently closed.”
One of the biggest Haddonfield Farmers Market vendors, Duffield’s Farm of Sewell, began offering a home delivery service for customers local to its Gloucester County home base. The response was so overwhelming that the business had to temporarily take it offline
“I’m pretty sure the established companies will survive through this,” Cialella said. “But there are small, little mom-and-pop startups that are going to suffer the most.
“I have a soft spot in my heart for the non-farmers because they can’t get out there in front of people yet,” he said. “We’ll have a regular market as soon as we can.”
The idea of offering a regular farmers market underscores the significance of the program in local culture, said Haddon Heights Farmers Market Director Joe Gentile.
The Haddon Heights market is one of the myriad programs under the banner of Gentile’s local business booster group, Heights in Progress, and the underpinning concept of his corner eatery, Local Links.
Gentile sees its planned, mid-May return as a key piece of “a sense of normalcy” in the community, even if its new layout looks unfamiliar.
“On the other side of this, the new normal,” Gentile said. “I think we’ve got to gradually get ourselves there.”
Gentile believes that all the area markets should standardize their procedures as best they can to make it easier for customers. Many of them share vendors, and that could continue, particularly if larger markets like Collingswood’s are spread over a few days.
“This will be a new way to bring all the markets together,” he said.
In Haddon Heights, Gentile is planning a similar, drive-through experience to those likely to emerge in neighboring communities.
He also wants to be able to offer pick-up from local breweries and regional wineries, a feature other markets may not yet offer.
“Everybody’s just figuring out ways, rather than delivering to people’s houses, to have them come to you,” Gentile said.
“You pull up, you put your nametag under your windshield wiper, the farmer sees you’re coming, throw it in the box, and it’s already pre-paid,” he said.
Gentile is hopeful that the return of experiences that have been missed during the pandemic, like the farmers markets, will increase people’s participation in them.
“Of course we’re going to go back to gathering and hanging out together, but in the wake of this whole thing, I think it’s taught us,” he said. “Hopefully this makes us better humans.”
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