Game changer: Pandemic impacts winter farmers markets

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The Mukwonago Farmers Market partnered with a local YMCA camp to offer a larger indoor winter market this season when it became clear their old location wasn’t viable with current social distancing guidelines. Photo courtesy of Mukwonago Chamber of Commerce

by Gail March Yerke

This past summer’s growing season saw outdoor farmers markets in the U.S. adopt new vendor layouts and customer traffic patterns in compliance with CDC, state and local guidelines.Deemed essential businesses, farmers markets were allowed to operate while other businesses were closed.

As the seasons changed, many markets moved indoors for autumn and winter. When faced with occupying the same space as the year before, however, how did these markets operate during a pandemic? Indoor market space is more finite and social distancing requirements impact them more than their outdoor counterparts. The result was often fewer vendor booths and less product selection for customers.

Tough Decisions

If your winter market opts for a different venue, will your customers follow? Just like moving any other business, it’s a risk and a challenge. Mukwonago Chamber of Commerce Executive Director April Reszka and Market Manager Erica Kryszkowski said that this year’s winter market was faced with that same decision. The chamber operates both summer and winter farmers markets for the southeastern Wisconsin community. When the pandemic forced a shutdown last March, the last three weeks of Mukwonago’s winter market were cancelled. Open on Saturday mornings in the local public library’s conference room, it was called off when the library closed. By summer, they realized that the CDC social distancing guidelines would continue into autumn and winter and their library venue would no longer support all of their vendors. If they stayed there, would customers even attend with only half as many vendors as the year before?

Moving a Market

“We had to find a new, larger place for the market,” said Kryszkowski. “We also didn’t want to be tied to a school or municipal building that could be shut down like last year.” They began their search and decided on the community building at a nearby camp.

“We’ve partnered with the Phantom Lake YMCA Camp and are using their welcome center for this year’s winter market,” said Reszka. “They are helping promote our new location on their website, social media and email blasts.” The new venue has four times the square footage of the library location, allowing for six feet between vendor tables and larger aisles. The building’s high ceilings and large windows allow for ample natural light and air movement. There’s more than enough room for their current vendors and they could even add a few more. Outdoor signs were ordered to promote the new location and indoor signage for one-way traffic flow and social distancing reminders. Vendors and customers alike preferred the new space. Attendance and daily sales increased.

Also located in Wisconsin, the Oconomowoc Winter Farmers Market decided to move to a larger space as well. “We are excited to be offering a Saturday market in the gym of Crosspoint Community Church,” said events coordinator Kris Gallert. The Oconomowoc Chamber of Commerce runs both summer and winter farmers markets for the community and decided to move and build on the success of this past year’s summer market.

“We saw a 29% increase in market shoppers this summer, with many new to the market. Many vendors happily reported selling out of product week after week during the summer,” Gallert said. The summer market occupies a municipal parking lot in downtown Oconomowoc and actually expanded to an adjacent lot to add more vendors in 2020.

Their demographic ranges from teens to young families and older adults. The new, larger winter location is promoted through the Chamber of Commerce website and attendance has not been an issue with the move. The market has its own Facebook page that reaches more than 5,700 followers each week, spotlighting their vendors and featuring products.

Safety First

Wisconsin currently has a mask mandate for indoor venues, and the markets follow all safety guidelines. Both markets offer hand sanitizer, and face masks are available at the front entrance. The volume of shoppers is monitored and arrows guide them through a one-way traffic pattern in the buildings.

“Customers have expressed appreciation for the safety protocols that have been put in place here in Oconomowoc,” said Gallert. “Our senior population has increased and the market offers them a safe place to shop and interact with others in the community.” The Oconomowoc market has added an option for high risk shoppers to connect with their favorite vendors through their website; Mukwonago offers personal shopping for those who cannot safely wear a mask.

“We have a 100% mask requirement for both vendors and customers alike,” said Kryszkowski. “If a customer has a medical issue and can’t wear a mask, we’ll shop for them and bring it to their car.”

Weather changes, seasons change. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that change is actually the only constant in life. With hard work and determination, these farmers markets have faced that change, evolved and continue to grow.

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