HENDERSON — In the midst of a global pandemic, area farmers market experienced challenges and had to come up with some creative ways to continue to help area growers, bakers and crafters continue to do business at the markets.

Vance County Regional Farmers MarketThe market, which was open at various times throughout the year, has experienced challenges and positives this year.

The overall customer count for the year was down by 42%.

But overall sales “held relatively steady” as customers elected to buy more of their produce, meats, canned and baked goods from a local source in “a safe environment,” Tracy Madigan, the manager of the Vance County Regional Farmers Market, said in an email.

With the exception of the market’s annual Handcrafted Holiday Market, the market didn’t host any special events — such as live music and children’s events like pumpkin painting at Halloween, among others it has traditionally held.

Also, the market didn’t offer any Cooperative Extension classes — such as Backyard Gardening and Weed Control — in the market’s facility classroom this year, although the Cooperative Extension did offer their classes online, Madigan said. The market also was closed to private facility rentals.

“Like all businesses that were able to operate in 2020, the VCRFM faced numerous challenges,” Madigan said. “With the cooperation of our vendors, customers, and the tremendous support from the Vance County Cooperative Extension Center staff, we were able to have a safe and successful 2020 market season. In an effort to create safe sales spaces for our vendors, we used tables to socially distance them from each other and customers. However, we had to limit the number of vendors because we did not have enough tables. The Vance County Farm Bureau graciously donated $800 to the market so we could purchase new tables and accommodate more vendors.”

Safety was the word.

See https://bit.ly/2JyeMPj, https://bit.ly/3pxSfBq and https://bit.ly/3hyFdRm to get an idea of how extensive the farmers market’s COVID-19 protocols are.

In addition to these safety precautions that were taken at the farmers market while it was open, maximum capacity limits, social distancing floor markings, and safety procedure signs were posted throughout the market. Customers were directed through the main entrance to control crowd size in the market, Madigan said.

“To ensure we were keeping our market safe and staying abreast of any new safety protocols, I received weekly updates from the [Centers for Disease Control, N.C. State University, the state Department of Agriculture], which provided the latest information and recommendations for safe operational practices,” Madigan said.

Farmers markets were categorized the same as grocery stores so the market “adhered” to the same guidelines for emergency maximum capacity limits. Based on the VCRFM square footage, that permitted the market 75 folks maximum in the market at a time.

Throughout the season, the garage bay doors, Madigan said, were opened at all times during market operation to ensure “adequate” ventilation and air flow. Additionally, vendor booths were set up “in configurations that placed vendors 7 feet from each other.”

On top of this, this year the market implemented a pre-order and curbside pickup program permitting customers to drive up and have their order brought to their car. Vendors, Madigan said, were prohibited from offering samples to customers. In addition to the market’s restrooms with access to sinks, soap and water, the market sets up a handwashing station in the lobby. The market supplied hand sanitizer and masks to vendors as well as customers.

Challenges and safety adaptation noted, as Madigan put it, “Often, adversity leads to innovation.”

One of “the positives” that came out of the pandemic for the market this season was that the market was able to partner with the Perry Memorial Library and host a “Pop-Up Library.” Madigan said since the library was physically closed to the public, they set up a booth and supplied services like getting a library card, instructions on utilizing their virtual library to check-out books and even books at the market to checkout.

Oxford Farmers MarketThis Oxford Farmers Market was open from May 2 through Oct. 24. The market closed early this year because of the rains drowning the growers’ fall crops.

Good things happened for the market this year.

Janis Daniel, president of the Oxford Farmers Market Association, said 2020 was a “great year” at the market. The farmers market had “a lot” of new customers, and folks enjoyed coming because of the COVID-19 measures the market had in place, according to Daniel.

Since the market is outside under a shed, and since the market’s tables are wide, the market didn’t have “a lot” of issues with COVID, Daniel explained.

On top of this, each vendor had hand sanitizer at their tables, and the farmers market used tablecloths that were plastic or vinyl so they could be wiped off, Daniel explained.

“In our articles, newsletters, and Facebook page, we advised people to stay home if they didn’t feel well and to practice social distancing at the market. Everyone was very good about this, thus alleviating any problems,” Daniel said in an email.

At the moment, however, the Oxford market is not open and its 2021 opening day depends on the strawberry crop, Daniel said. Since they come in around the first of May, this is normally when the market opens. Daniel added that if the market hasn’t opened before Mother’s Day weekend — the second weekend in May — the market will open then.

“Although we have no idea what COVID issues hold for 2021, our plans are to continue with the safety measures we put in place this year,” Daniel said.