2020 Upper Arlington Farmers Market weathers pandemic

NATE ELLIS
nellis@thisweeknews.com
Kris Edwards (right) of Upper Arlington holds out a basket for Rachel Kelly from Paige's Produce to fill with apples Sept. 16 at the Upper Arlington Farmers Market. Although protocols are in place because of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, the average market-day attendance increased from 350 last year to 450 this season. The final market is Wednesday, Sept. 30.

Despite new guidelines and challenges brought on by the pandemic, this year's Upper Arlington Farmers Market saw an increase in visitors.

When the market began May 20, it did so under the shadow of the COVID-19 coronavirus and a plethora of new rules, including one-way foot traffic through the grounds, restrictions against food and drink samples and a mandate for all shoppers and vendors to wear face masks.

As this year's market heads into its final event of the season from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 2850 Tremont Road, the changes and the pandemic still linger.

They haven't kept visitors away, however.

According to market manager Michelle White, average attendance increased from 350 shoppers per market day in 2019 to 450 per market day this year.

"Overall, I am happy with how the market has gone this year," White said. "We've had fantastic weather, which is a nice change over the rainy Wednesdays we experienced last season.

"Shopping with a mask while keeping socially distant from your friends and neighbors is not everyone's ideal situation for a farmers market. But we were able to continue to provide the community with an access point to Ohio farmers and food producers and in a safe, outdoor setting."

Gone from this year's market were a number of frills, including live music, community-group exhibits and a petting zoo that made the event something of a weekly social gathering.

Customers also were asked to complete their shopping and exit the market grounds, a departure from past years when visitors were encouraged to leisurely take in the event's sights, sounds and tastes while moving back and forth between vendors.

White, who is in her second year overseeing the market, said the biggest challenge was for vendors, particularly those new to the market who were prohibited from offering samples of their goods.

"Without being able to offer samples of their products, it is difficult to convince shoppers to purchase unique and specialty items without trying them first," she said.

Jay Bennett, owner of DrankTank, is a Columbus-based mobile craft-beverage vendor who sells drinks ranging from nitrogen-infused cold-brew coffee and specialty teas to sparkling Ohio apple cider and seltzer.

He's in his third season as a vendor at the Upper Arlington Farmers Market and said sales there haven't been affected as much as at a number of other farmers markets he takes part in around Interstate 270.

But he noted this year has been a challenge, especially for a business that in the past sold to a number of customers who wanted drinks while they socialized or just relaxed at the market.

"Mostly what everyone is here for is produce," Bennett said. "They're coming in the first 10 minutes and then they're out. There's not as much hanging out as we used to have.

"It probably has hurt businesses like mine that survive on a handheld item and also the food trucks."

Bennett said the key to enduring has been to "pivot" his business strategies, including dropping growler prices by as much as $3.

"I think it's just as important to be here, because at the same time, I consider all of us vendors to be providing a service outside of our product," Bennett said. "We're giving people an availability to be outside, to socialize a little bit and to kind of feel some kind of normalcy.

"I think there's more to it than just the bottom dollar."

Those sentiments were right in line with Tami Knight's.

Knight, a retired pottery teacher, comes to the market each week.

"It's the most exciting day of the week for me," she said. "I'm retired and so I've been sheltering at home. I really look forward to this. They have wonderful produce, and I like shopping here."

Loading up her backpack with fresh tomatoes for her bicycle ride home, Knight said she enjoyed the market even more in 2020, despite the safety protocols.

"Because of COVID and the limitations of what we can do, it was always something that I did, but now it's definitely more important to me than it used to be," she said.

nellis@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekNate