As restaurants across Houston have been required to close their dining rooms to slow the spread of coronavirus, local farmers markets are now working on the front lines to keep Houstonians fed.
Traffic at many area farmers markets is up, due in large part to empty shelves and huge crowds of panic-buyers at local grocery stores. According to Tyler Horne, director of farmers markets for Houston nonprofit Urban Harvest, the emergence of new crowds in the time of coronavirus has created a new set of challenges for vendors and market operators, especially when it comes to complying with public health measures that are being constantly updated.
“We’re taking it on a day-by-day basis,” Horne said. “One of the things that will be a big change this week from last week is that we’re not going to have any kind of on-site food consumption. People are welcome to order. They’re not welcome to stay and eat it. They have to get it to go. We don’t really want to encourage people lingering.”
In addition to the to-go only system, Urban Harvest’s market has also adopted a slew of safety measures to help protect both customers and vendors, including encouraging cashless transactions to limit contact, and requiring vendors to handle items with gloves. The Houston Farmers Market has also implemented similar measures.
Keeping farmers markets open is also hugely important for local farmers, who are sitting on overstock produce that they can’t sell to restaurants and facing significant declines in revenue. “The farmers market is their main spot that they generate sales,” Horne said. “The farmers market is probably as important as it’s ever been to them, just evidenced by the amount of vendors calling and checking in on a Monday going, ‘Are we going to have the market on Saturday?’ and I’m like, ‘You know guys, I think we are but there’s no guarantees at this point.’”
Horne also points out that farmers can make higher profits at farmers markets, where they can charge premium prices for their goods. “The direct-to-consumer model for farms is much more lucrative for them than selling wholesale,” Horne says. “If they can have an increase in volume and still be able to charge top-dollar for it, that’s a big win for the farms. I would say that farmers markets have maybe become more relevant than ever.”
As such, Urban Harvest is moving forward, even though it will only open one of its three farmers markets (the River Oaks market at 2752 Buffalo Speedway) this weekend. In an effort to ensure that everyone stays healthy, the market’s website urges visitors to only come if they’re healthy and not part of an at-risk population that faces a higher chance of death if they contract COVID-19.