The Clintonville Farmers' Market has begun its season -- although not technically in Clintonville -- but organizers who adapted the event to help combat the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus said the modified experience has been about as successful as could be expected.

It has been no small feat to create an event for people to buy and sell food while abiding by health guidelines put in place in response to the pandemic.

"We think of ourselves as more than a market," market manager Michelle White said, referencing the social nature of the event that typically would include live entertainment, children's activities and other programming alongside independent producers offering fresh food to visitors.

"You can't replace the character we've built, but the experience of buying directly from the farmer is still there," she said.

Normally held at the intersection of North High Street and Dunedin Road, the Clintonville Farmers' Market generally draws about 2,000 customers and between 50 and 70 producers on site.

White said the footprint of that location was too small to allow for the recommended social-distancing and other safety measures.

"The challenge was having to adapt and change almost by the hour," board president Elizabeth Douglass said.

"Decisions would get made, and then something would happen that would render the decision moot," she said.

"The amount of time we spent planning and researching, talking with other markets in the area and around the country, we think really paid off," White said. "Our normal location is tight. We just didn't think, with social distancing requirements, that it could happen there."

The market -- held from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays through Nov. 21 -- pivoted to a drive-up, pre-paid model, with online ordering and in-car pickup.

At the May 2 market, producers, market staff and volunteers wore masks and gloves. Customers in cars were required to wear masks, too. Only producers were touching the food, Whiten said.

Those protocols will continue until further notice.

Needing a new location, organizers worked with the Ohio History Connection, 800 E. 17th Ave. in Columbus, to set up in its parking lot.

White said the market is committed to this format through mid-June. If conditions allow, Douglass said, the market may move to a hybrid or modified open market. She said she expects to be able to continue at the Ohio History Center location for the season.

The market opened April 25. Other than some temporary glitches with the new online ordering system, it has operated as well as White could have hoped, she said.

"The Clintonville market is my favorite" of the seven that Kingdom Fish participates in, owner Don Jones said. The farm-raised-fish and produce vendor said he prefers the walk-up format but understands the reasons why Clintonville made the changes it did.

"Michelle and the staff and volunteers have done a great job for us," he said.

"I would much prefer to be wearing a mask and gloves and adapting to a drive-thru market style than to not have a market available at all," 9NFarm owner Dan Woods said. "I think the government at both the local and national level has presented a clear case that personal protective equipment and social distancing are effective tools to help minimize exposure and spread. As such, incorporating those practices into the market hasn't been much of a burden."

In addition to facilitating things like hand sanitizer and masks, the market set up the online ordering platform, allowing each producer to set up its section of the site.

"Some producers were hesitant at first" to online ordering," White said, "but I think as people have seen how it works and people get familiar with it, it's been really strong."

Whereas the market limited the total number of orders for the first few weeks as the new format was rolled out, a review of individual orders found customers were spending about twice as much on average than in past years, White said.

"The biggest change has come from the need to receive orders online, mark packaging and bag each individual order," Woods said. "It has added several hours of work that was unanticipated. The good news is that it prevents me from harvesting more of a product than I need.

"I know what orders I have and what I need," Woods said.

White and Douglass both said market staff members, volunteers, producers and customers all said they miss the social experience the market has become over its 17 years.

"It's not the experience we wanted but we're trying to retain the integrity of the market for our producers and customers," Douglass said. "Our prime purpose is to have a community where farmers and customers connect, and there are aspects of that this model does not support."

"While I am incredibly grateful to our market customers -- support has been fantastic this season -- there has been something missing from the experience of being at market," Woods said. "Having walk-up orders does allow me to make extra sales and introduce new products to customers -- but more than that I have been missing the connection with shoppers."

editorial@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNews