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Farmers markets open under new COVID-19 guidelines

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RONAN – They held the first farmers market of the season in Ronan last Thursday and everything looked like business as usual, but a closer inspection revealed a few differences this year.

Reducing the spread of the COVID-19 virus created the need for social distancing guidelines at farmers markets this spring. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services requires markets to have sanitary operating conditions and follow strict physical distancing of six feet. 

In Ronan, vendors are wearing masks. A stretch of plastic tape, held up by posts, circled the tables, and customers remained behind the barrier. Products were visible but people couldn’t touch, smell or taste things before purchasing. “People have to look with their eyes and not their hands,” Zach Johnson of Crows View Organic Farms. His homemade bread rested on the table where people could point out a loaf to purchase. Samples weren’t available this year as per the guidelines.

“The COVID-19 crisis has forced us to move to a no-frills experience and there will be no music, communal eating areas, kids’ activities or special events,” market guidelines state. 

Another big difference in the Ronan market is the hand-washing station. Market manager Katie Neskey demonstrated how the station works. She stood in front of a large water container resting on a wooden stand and flipped up the spout to get her hands wet. She lathered her hands in soap for the required 20 seconds and rinsed. A five-gallon bucket collected the used water. Customers are asked to wash their hands when arriving at the market and frequently as they move throughout the market. 

The five market vendors last week each said the new guidelines caused them to make changes, but they were glad that the market opened. “A month ago, we didn’t think we were going to be able to even open,” said Brianna Evert of Crows View Organic Farms. “We thought we might have to offer everything online. I am super glad we can even have it.”

Evert said it was too early in the growing season to offer fresh vegetables, but she planned on bringing micro greens, radishes, spinach and peas to the next market.

At another station, thick slices of fruit pie waited for customers. Home On The Range Pies by Mary and Rusty Carl made it back to the market this year. They usually travel to different markets. The Ronan market was their first one for the season. “We are optimistic about the market this year,” Mary said. “We don’t know if the Missoula market will open, but so far, we plan to go to the local markets that are open.” Mary reached into the glass case and wrapped up a slice of her pie for a customer. The pies are cut into square slices that make it easy for customers to hold. She also has tarts and scones and will have pre-order round pies.

Wendi Arnold of Flathead Lake Cheese had a selection of fresh cheese for people to purchase, no samples this year. She said her Polson business already had a walk-up window for shopping before the pandemic so business has continued as usual.

Bill Houck displayed stained-glass jewelry, deer and elk horn knives and other handcrafted items. He said he depends on the market for half of his yearly income, so he was “really happy” that it opened. “I’ll be here next week,” he said of his commitment to attend as many markets as he can. The weather sometimes closes the market, and the COVID-19 pandemic has caused uncertainty.

David Sturman from Shady Maple Farm brought his packaged lamb and beef to the market. He said talking to people through a mask created a bit of a challenge, but he was also grateful the market opened. “Ninety percent of my income from the last two years has come from markets, so it was an incentive to keep going.”

He said the virus has caused small meat processing operations to be busier than usual. “The big processors have employees with the virus, so it’s the little guys, the small producers, who are being hit with a big volume of orders,” he said. 

Anticipating the amount of product to produce for the year is another challenge. “Who knows what will happen, but in the same breath, I enjoy this work. I’m not bragging but people like what have: 100 percent grass and hay fed, no shots.”

Neskey isn’t making any predictions either about how this year’s season will end up. She said it will be a challenge for people not to touch, smell or sample any of the items, but for now, 17 vendors have signed up to sell their goods, and she is looking on the positive side.

“The good thing out of everything that has happened with the virus is that people are thinking about where their food comes from,” she said, explaining that people are growing things themselves or wanting locally grown, fresh, healthy food that they can get from local markets.

She said produce should be available at the next market located behind the Visitor’s Center in Ronan on Thursday from 4 to 7 p.m. The Polson Farmers Market is open on Fridays from 9a.m. to 1 p.m. with social distancing guidelines. The St. Ignatius market opening will soon be announced. The Arlee Farmers Market is scheduled to open on May 27. 


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