By Cindy Hadish/for the Corridor Business Journal
After a socially distanced season last year, farmers market managers hope to return to the more socially interactive markets of the past.
Both Iowa City and Cedar Rapids plan on holding in-person markets, though changes made during the COVID-19 pandemic will continue in some cases.
“We are cautiously optimistic we will be able to hold an in-person Downtown Cedar Rapids Farmers Market season beginning on Saturday, June 19,” Melissa McCarville, strategy director for the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance wrote in an email. “Of course, plans are subject to change based on evolving health and safety protocols.”
During a typical year, the downtown markets attract 200 vendors and 14,000 customers at each twice-monthly event, so organizers faced an overwhelming challenge to meet state COVID-19-related restrictions last spring, such as ensuring social distancing.
In response, they implemented an online, drive-through market, with 1,587 orders placed and more than $82,247 spent with local small business owners during the 2020 season.
Ms. McCarville noted a decision would be made later regarding Market After Dark – the popular night market attracted 50,000 people in 2019 – with a tentative date set for Sept. 25.
At least two new farmers market options will be offered in Cedar Rapids.
Matt McGrane, associate director of Cultivate Hope, said new “Mega Markets” will be held in addition to the weekly Cultivate Hope Market, which sells produce from the Matthew 25 Urban Farm in northwest Cedar Rapids.
“We are really excited about the Mega Markets,” Mr. McGrane wrote in an email, noting that the new event is intended to be a monthly neighborhood celebration with additional vendors, music and activities. “It is in keeping with our mission of neighborhood revitalization through food access.”
Michelle Hosch of MH Entertainment said a new farmers market intended to start on the grounds of the Chrome Horse Saloon was canceled last year due to the pandemic, but will finally happen this summer.
The Eastern Iowa Arts Academy will provide music at most of the Chrome Horse markets, located in New Bohemia, offering a social ambiance.
Farmers Market Coordinator Tammy Neumann said Iowa City is returning to in-person markets after the city pivoted to an online, contact-free version last year, in collaboration with Field to Family.
Iowa City’s first farmers market of the season will be May 1.
Last year’s online market was so successful that it was extended five weeks, into November and December.
Field to Family Director Michelle Kenyon pointed to the virtual market’s benefits for farmers and customers, including $535,000 in sales directly to the 41 participating vendors; a total of 12,143 orders distributed over 31 weeks and more than 4,700 hours of time donated from about 180 volunteers.
In response to high demand, Field to Family will continue the online farmers market as an independent effort this year, with at least 34 vendors. The market will be similar to last year’s, but customers will pick up their orders at a different location.
Ms. Kenyon noted that the virtual markets are among the ways Field to Family keeps the community connected to local food and farm products.
Smaller farmers markets were able to adapt to last year’s pandemic requirements, and while some closed, many continued with mask requirements and by allowing greater space between vendor tables.
Market Manager Laura Strabala said masks will be required for vendors and recommended for customers at the Mount Vernon farmers market, which begins May 6.
“Thankfully, since we are outside, we are able to give each other more space,” Ms. Strabala said. “However, we have really tried to keep things as normal as possible for the customer.”
While many growers and other market vendors are eager for a return to normalcy, at least one decided to change course, based on what she learned during the pandemic.
Katie Adams of Thumbprint Soap sold handcrafted soaps and other skin care products the past two years at the Downtown Farmers Market, including the drive-through market, but decided against it this season.
“Last year showed me that I don’t need to sell at as many markets as I used to,” Ms. Adams said. “I’m getting more wholesale orders and have my products in several stores on consignment, and my website is doing well. The pandemic showed me I could cut back.”
Photos and story © HomegrownIowan.com and Corridor Business Journal