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April 28, 2020

Maine farmers' markets reopen, but with social distancing and other precautions

Portland farmers market farm stand and shoppers Photo / Renee Cordes The Portland Farmers' Market opened for the season on Saturday at Deering Oaks Park.

On Saturday at Deering Oaks Park, the Portland Farmers' Market opened for the summer season looking very different than normal, with vendor booths spread far apart and signs directing shoppers to move in one direction and stick to physical-distancing rules amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other than that, it was business as usual for the market that goes back nearly 250 years as shoppers braved blustery weather to stock up on fresh produce, poultry, baked goods and canned jams and honey, most but not all donning face masks.

Taking stock on Tuesday, Portland Farmers' Market Association Chair Carolyn Snell told Mainebiz that the opening day is typically a "soft opening," with less than half of vendors there this past Saturday.

"Some people's crops are not ready, and they're also figuring out safety systems and everything," she said.

While she didn't have an estimate of the customer count, she felt everything was "quite civilized," despite new restrictions and circumstances that shoppers and vendors alike are still getting used to, like limits on the number of shoppers at each booth.

"It means sometimes farmers have to be enforcers, which is a cultural shift for us, and doesn't always feel comfortable," said Snell, who was also there as a vendor for the Snell Family Farm in Buxton. 

While their vegetables won't be ready on July, rosemary plants proved their top seller on Saturday, she said, adding, "We're all looking for some spark of joy."

The Portland Farmers' Market, set to run through late November, is one of many across the state kicking off their summer season with extra precautions for merchants and shoppers during the pandemic.

To prevent crowding, customers are urged to plan ahead and pre-order when possible, and send only one shopper per household, though there were a number of couples and families there on Saturday.

Customers are also asked to wash or sanitize their hands often and wear a face mask at the market, though there were many without coverings on Saturday.

Vendor booths, normally 6-10 feet apart, were spread more than 30 feet apart, and foot traffic was regulated in a one-way circular direction around the park.

The market will take place every Saturday from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m., with the first hour reserved for customers age 69 or older or with compromised immune systems. Starting tomorrow, the seasonal Wednesday market at Monument Square will move to Deering Oaks Park, every Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.

In Maine's second-largest city, the Lewiston Farmers' Market will open for the season on May 10, which is also Mother's Day, at the municipal parking lot at the corner of Lincoln and Main streets.

It, too, will open with health and safety protocols, including a special shopping time from 9:30-10 a.m. for seniors and people with compromised health, use of paperless payment options and and an online pre-order and pick-up system.

The market said it has also simplified and streamlined its market-wide credit card and food-stamp payment systems to support quick and safe payment.

In late March, the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry issued guidance for farmers across the state marketing directly to consumers. It strongly encourages markets to adjust their physical layouts to promote social distancing, including encouraging one-way pedestrian traffic and using signage and staff to alert shoppers to safety measures.

There is also a best practices checklist for market vendors and managers.

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