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Area Farmers’ Markets Opening Up While Adjusting to Pandemic Challenges

Josh Fluharty of Smithfield bags produce for Eda Dragonetti of Wheeling during the Warwood Farmers’ Market in 2019.

WHEELING – Officials representing several farmers’ markets in Ohio County are hopeful for robust attendance this growing season as they address social distancing and other challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Wheeling, Warwood and Highlands farmers’ markets will all be implementing social distancing and safety rules established by the West Virginia Department of Agriculture as all three markets kick off the beginning of the growing season this week — the Public Market Store has already made the necessary adjustments as an essential business.

Plans are set for the newly established cooperative Highlands Farmers’ Market, as it is scheduled to open 4-7 p.m., Thursday, in the parking area between Cabelas and Sheetz, according to event organizer Eric Blend.

“We’re just trying to make sure that the public is safe and that the public knows the products they are getting from our local farmers are safe,” Blend explained.

Blend said at this point they are conducting a traditional farmers’ market and limiting contact as they are putting in place social distancing and safety rules.

“It’s outside, and what we decided is there will be a vehicle parked in between each vendor … and vendors will be required to wear masks,” Blend explained.

In addition, He said they will have “one-way” walking set-up throughout the market, only allow one customer per booth at a time, and customers will not be permitted to pick-up the produce unless they are purchasing it.

“We’re in a unique circumstance. … With us everything is going to be new, so I think that will help us some, because it’s a new market. So people are going to be looking for a new experience and people are going to be open to new ideas,” Blend said. “The Highland’s Farmers’ Market is structured differently because the vendors own part of the market as a business.”

He said the market has to be set-up as a majority of farmers for the weekly event.

Blend said their vendors will be offering a large variety of produce throughout the growing season, including other items like processed chicken, beef, granola, honey, sweet bread, and garden plants.

Matt Rafa, market chairman of the Warwood Farmers’ Market said they are looking for another successful year with their market, which is scheduled to kick-off from 4-7 p.m today in Garden Park in Warwood.

Rafa said in the midst of the pandemic, they are also implementing a number of social distancing and safety rules, including: supplying each vendor with hand sanitizer and placing signage of the department of agriculture safety rules throughout the market.

“We took a lot of their recommendations into consideration and implemented them into our own safety response,” Rafa explained. “We’re asking all of our vendors to have face coverings of some sort and gloves … as they continuously replace (produce) between each customer. … We’re also asking our vendors to do pre-packaging … and the department of agriculture is asking us to not allow patrons to pick up items.

“We’re actually going to have more produce vendors than we ever had before … so that is very exciting,” Rafa explained.

He said the market hosts a variety of vendors who sell both produce and artisan items.

“For the most part, most of our goods are going to be homegrown or homemade wares — pottery, baskets, jewelry, art, … this year we have just an unbelievable assortment,” he added. He said this is the first year they will be rolling out an online feature, where people can browse and pre-order items ahead of time.

In addition, customers can call 304-460-5519 to place a curbside assistance order. Rafa said they are in the process of setting up an application that can be downloaded to order products ahead of time.

“Honestly we are expecting it to be better than ever before,” Rafa explained.

He said in the midst of the pandemic, he expects a lot of people to come out and help support local businesses.

“I think that’s really appealing to a lot of people and for that reason we’re expecting bigger turnouts,” he added.

Bill Bertram, president of the Wheeling Farmer’s Market, echoed many of the same comments as Blend and Rafa in regard to the challenges facing the market. The market is set for 8 a.m. to noon Saturday in the parking lot next to St. Michael Parish School.

Bertram said they will be posting safety and social distancing rules for vendors and customers to follow during the event. In addition, they will not be able to feature a chef for the first time in years, as they are not permitted to hand out food samples this year.

“We will have signs up. We will have hand washing stations, and we will probably have masks for the vendors,” Bertram explained.

Bertram said they have between 18 to 20 vendors on their roster. He said they offer a large variety of produce and baked goods, and a number of other products.

“We’ve been in business 25-plus years as a market in the valley. We have seen a lot of changes through the years. This year will be a major change obviously … but I think our vendors are up to it,” Bertram commented. “We just ask people to be patient for a couple of weeks, because it’s a change for all of us.”

Danny Swan, Grow Ohio Valley executive director, said they have already made the necessary social distancing and safety changes at Grow Ohio Valley’s year-round market located on the ground floor of the intermodal center on Main Street in downtown Wheeling.

“So we’re kind of basing that as our center of operations for all farmers’ market activities that Grow Ohio Valley is doing now,” Swan explained.

He said they have made a lot of changes in the store in response to the pandemic, such as social distancing rules and the installation of plexiglass barriers between employees and customers. He said they also offer curbside pickup at the store.

Swan said currently they are using their mobile farmer’s market truck for the “Restaurant to Schools” program in Ohio County. He said as summer rolls along they intend to start using their mobile market to sell more and more produce around different areas of town.

“We’re still working out the schedule,” he added.

In addition, the COVID-19 crisis is causing delays with the distribution of senior farmers’ market vouchers this year through the WV Agriculture department, according to Paula Calvert, CEO of Family Service-Upper Ohio Valley.

Calvert said, because Family Service is the local distribution site for the vouchers, she just wants area seniors who participate in the program to realize there is a delay this year due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“The state is having to rethink how they are going to be approaching this program. … so at this point we do not have the vouchers. We usually have them by this point,” Calvert said.

She expects they will receive the vouchers by the end of June.

“We’re still trying to figure out what is going to be the best way to have this program, have social distancing, and making sure everybody is filling out the applications correctly,” she added.

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