Petaluma farmers markets adapting to coronavirus guidelines, including curbside pickup

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For a few hours Tuesday morning, a lively parking lot in Petaluma’s east side featured a semblance of normalcy, an almost jarring pocket of life in a city weeks into a lockdown.

The weekly Farmer’s Market next to Lucchesi Park is not only still open, but experiencing a boom in business, despite multiple adjustments to comply with social-distancing and CDC guidelines.

“Just like everyone else, we’re shifting how we deal with the public,” said the market’s organizer and founder Kelly Smith, whose nonprofit Agricultural Community Events Farmers Markets runs 10 markets in Sonoma and Marin counties. Three of them are in Petaluma, including the year-round Tuesday east side Farmer’s Market.

Booths are now spaced six feet apart, each ringed with caution tape or saran wrap to prevent customers from getting too close to vendors inside the tents. A hand-washing station greets shoppers at the entrance, as do signs reminding everyone to socially distance and wear masks.

Aisles are widened and 6-foot spaced line markers chalked on the ground snake toward a handful of popular booths that often see lines. Customers can no longer feel for the ripest tomato or pick through a basket of cherries, as new guidelines only permit vendors to touch and bag produce. Some vendors have moved away from cash, and all don masks and gloves.

“Under these circumstances, we don’t have things like live music, seating, and hot food is meant to be taken home,” Smith said of the changes. “And a lot of the craft vendors are no longer there because only essential items are allowed for sale.”

The market is also providing curbside pickup, allowing shoppers to place orders the day before market for an additional $10 fee. The demand has been so overwhelming that Smith is sprinting to fill orders and applying for funding to add another employee to the lean three-person operation.

“The curbside service has become so important in recent years,” Smith said. “During fires and the smoke from Paradise, people couldn’t always be outside. In some ways, COVID-19 has offered us new ways to deal with disasters and still support our local farmers and communities.”

A steady stream of Petalumans shuttled down the aisle Tuesday, shoppers of every age undeterred by the adjustments, hands full of vibrant greens and fresh bread.

Owner of La Vita Buena Nursery Zeke Boland said business over the past few weeks has skyrocketed, as people become less fearful of the market and residents stuck at home develop a green thumb.

“It was really hard at first, but people are getting used to it now and we’re doing really good,” Boland said.

A few stalls down, husband and wife farmers Min-Hee and Damon Hill recall a similar slow start among wary shoppers. But after a few weeks, Damon Hill said business has “quadrupled.”

“I think people recognize the value of fresh veggies,” Damon Hill said. “Plus, there’s the supply chain in grocery markets. Items go through a lot of hands, sit on the shelf for who knows how long. Here you’re buying things directly from the farmers.”

Smith says she’s seeing many of the same faces each week, including loyal shoppers that have been visiting the east side market for years. While the customer base remains stable, she has noticed purchase volumes are rising, many stocking up for a week or two at a time or buying extra for family and neighbors.

Despite the absence of some sellers and encouragement for shoppers to “get in and get out,” the market maintains the collegial and relaxed atmosphere that regulars Rick and Patti McLean have always preferred over grocery stores. Echoing several other shoppers, the McLeans said they feel safer shopping in the open air than in grocery stores.

Barbara Laytham said she needed a few weeks to feel fully relaxed in the new farmer’s market setting, initially caught off guard by a sea of masks and inaccessible produce.

“It’s important for me to be here, to support our local people and farms instead of just going to the grocery chains,” Laytham said. “I think it’s even more important now, to support our community.”

As the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic continues, Smith is seeing its effects ripple among her vendors and customers. She’s unable to offer booths to businesses deemed non-essential, and is straining to spread the word about CalFresh dollar matching at the markets as unemployment reaches historic levels.

“One of our customers was once a vendor at the market, but she’s non-essential and now shut down,” Smith said. “She’s on CalFresh now and shopping for her elderly mother.”

All of the Agricultural Community Events Farmers Markets provide a $10 match for CalFresh recipients, with the exception of the Santa Rosa Market that offers a $20 match.

“You can take $10 off your card, and have another $10 for free to buy fruits and vegetables, which is nothing to sneeze at,” Smith said. “It’s double the money to spend, and I don’t think a lot of people know about it.”

She said the east side Farmer’s Market only gets 10 to 20 CalFresh customers a week, a number she calls “a drop in the bucket” for the county’s second-largest city.

Smith said she’s expecting the adjustments will stay in place through the summer. The Saturday afternoon Walnut Park Farmer’s Market will launch as scheduled May 9, with the same protocols as those at the east side market. She said the jury is still out on whether the Wednesday evening market can go forward this year, which usually runs from early June through the end of August downtown.

(Contact Kathryn Palmer at, on Twitter @KathrynPlmr.)

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