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Drive-thru farmers' market works for farmers and fans, but will it continue amid COVID-19 pandemic?
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Drive-thru farmers' market works for farmers and fans, but will it continue amid COVID-19 pandemic?

From the The COVID-19 pandemic hits home: Keep up with the latest local news on the coronavirus outbreak series

Some die-hard Dane County Farmers’ Market shoppers got their vegetables straight from the farmer last week in drive-thru fashion adapted for life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Farmers, wearing surgical masks or bandannas around their mouths and noses, loaded customer purchases into trunks and hatchbacks as grateful shoppers waved and smiled their thanks.

A sign near the entrance advised shoppers to wash their produce before eating it.

“We’ve been trying not to go to the grocery store at all and had been running out of our vegetables,” said Anthony Austin, 34, a regular farmers’ market customer of Driftless Organics.

Austin and Wendy Guan, 27, biked to the Garver Feed Mill behind Olbrich Botanical Gardens on Madison’s East Side from their Tenney-Lapham neighborhood. They’d ordered spinach that Josh Engel, owner of Driftless Organics, 10 miles west of Soldiers Grove, had grown in a hoop house.

They also got carrots, potatoes and mixed root vegetables that Engel kept in cold storage over the winter. Engel’s market manager, Adam Ruffner, left their order curbside and the couple then loaded the goods into their panniers.

Engel was one a handful of vendors who participated in the “Local Food Pick Up” pilot program, which started last week, and is designed to minimize contact between vendors and customers.

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Market managers offered the opportunity to vendors who participated in the newly relocated Late Winter Market, which began in early January at Garver. They accepted vendors on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Customers placed orders by phone, on the farms’ websites or by email, depending on the vendor. Parking lot pickups took place in shifts from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday at Garver. Customers were asked to stay in their vehicles.

Participating vendors were listed on the market’s website along with what they were selling and how to order and pay. All products were bagged or boxed in advance, and no cash changed hands. Vendor vehicles displayed the name of the farm or business and were spaced at least 10 feet apart. One car was allowed to approach a vendor at a time.

Between the two days, 17 members participated in the market. It has 265 members, so market manager Sarah Elliott said the program may not make it out of its pilot stage.

“It is very unclear whether we will be able to continue them in a manner that is safe for our members, our customers and market staff,” said Elliott, who runs the program with assistant manager Jill Carlson Groendyk. “With a tiny staff of two, it also remains to be seen whether we will have the capacity to manage them on a larger scale.”

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The pickup model is tentatively planned to happen again Wednesday with 20 vendors. Consumers interested in taking part are encouraged to visit the “Super Fresh” section of the market’s website,, to see what’s being sold and how to make purchases.

The initial trial went smoothly, Elliott said, with each customer making purchases from about three vendors. All purchases were set up in advance, with no walk-up purchases allowed.

Saturdays on hold

As for the largest producer-only farmers’ market in the country, which encircles the Capitol on Saturday mornings and was scheduled to begin April 11, Elliott said, “I think it is safe to say the market is postponed.”

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The state has rescinded permits for all events scheduled on the Capitol Square, Elliott said, until emergency orders due to the spread of COVID-19 are suspended.

The outdoor market on the Square has 140 to 160 vendors, but in the early months, before most area farmers start harvesting, there are far fewer. Business picks up by mid-June, but it’s typical for the season to open in April with 50 to 60 vendors.

The market and FairShare CSA Coalition have set up a GoFundMe Emergency Farmer Fund to assist farmers whose income has been severely affected by the COVID-19 outbreak. As of Sunday evening, it had raised more than $8,300 toward its $10,000 goal.

The market’s website also provides ways for customers to connect directly with vendors through delivery, pick-up or mail.

Scott Williams, who runs Garden to Be farm in the town of Primrose, in the southwest corner of Dane County, and has sold at the market for 20 years, was among the vendors at the Tuesday pickup market selling microgreens he grows in hoop houses.

He did about half the business he’d been doing when the Late Winter Market was inside at Garver, he said, but he’s hoping to continue since the market abruptly ended, and his 35 restaurant customers had to close their dining rooms. While many restaurants have transitioned to takeout and delivery, Williams said he took a big hit.

“Plus, every one of my restaurant customers is now facing impossibly difficult decisions regarding their businesses,” he said. “Paying vendors for past deliveries is just one of dozens of layers of challenges facing them right now.”

A good start

The market pickup program got off to a good start, by Williams’ account. He had 30 orders Tuesday but he said it has been an adjustment, figuring out ways to reach customers and fielding questions about product and payment options. He now has a Venmo mobile payment account and a Square card swiper, and intends to begin using Paypal to completely avoid cash transactions.

Engel, of Driftless Organics, had 120 customers Thursday with 90% paying in advance and the rest paying by check.

Daniel Cornelius, who’s been selling his wild rice at the market since 2018, after being on the waiting list for several years, had 10 orders Thursday through the pick-up program.

“The market managers have done a fantastic job of implementing this strategy, which seems much safer than going into a grocery store at this point,” said Cornelius, who’s sending invoices through Square.

Lori Robson, who has run Chris & Lori’s Bakehouse in Poynette for 25 years, said she’s glad to participate in the pilot pickup program until the market can open. The Robsons are having customers order scones by the dozen, noting that they freeze well. They had 32 dozen ordered last week and are baking everything to order.

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However, Robson noted that last week’s pickup sales at Garver accounted for less than 10% of what a typical outdoor market would bring in. The Robsons started their season early this year, knowing they couldn’t count on a normal season. They don’t typically participate in the Late Winter Market and instead have been taking January through March off. “We work a lot the rest of the year,” Robson said.

Two weeks ago, they did their own food pickup, offering customers the option of picking up orders from their commercial kitchen in Poynette or meeting them in Madison. They had 44 dozen ordered but decided to go with the market-sponsored event last week.

Nadia Alber, director of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy & Livestock Farmers, has run a farm near Spring Green with her husband, Chad Backes, since 2016. At this point in the season, they’re selling grass-fed lamb and beef, pastured pork, and eggs from free-range chickens, plus some canned organic produce.

Backes was at the “pick-up” market Thursday, while Alber stayed home with their two young children. Alber said they’ve seen an increase in sales due to people wanting to “stock up,” but she doesn’t know if that will last.

On a summer Saturday at the market, Yeng Yang said he sells as many as 1,000 of his Yummee chocolate chip cookies. Tuesday he sold 80 at the pick-up market. But he has other business plans in play. “With the challenges going on, we believe it’s putting us on track to becoming a cookie delivery business just like pizza delivery,” he said.

Even before social distancing measures took effect, he had a few customers pick up cookies where he makes them, at the FEED Kitchen on Sherman Avenue. More customers are doing that now, and he’s started delivering them.“Nothing will stop us from getting our cookies out to families,” Yeng said.

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