You might notice a lot of changes at the farmers markets in and around Houston. Some are substantial, others are small but critical.
"One vendor has become very appreciative of the fact that not everyone gets to squeeze his tomatoes," says John Carey, market manager at the Westchase District Farmers Market that takes place every Thursday afternoon next to St. Cyril of Alexandria Catholic Church. "It's a very good description of what's going on these days: 'People aren't squeezing my tomatoes.'"
Throw together the tomatoes, new safety precautions, new vendors, and bigger profits, and it's proving there's a sea of changea happening at local farmers markets. The ones that have stayed opened through the COVID-19 pandemic are seeing that people are relying on them more than ever.
"I think people are coming more with an idea of what they want," says Tyler Horne, director of the Urban Harvest farmers market that runs every Saturday at St. John's School. "Instead of people who just show up and buy a pint of blueberries, people are coming in with carts and baskets."
Urban Harvest has been consistently hosting its Saturday market without disruption through the pandemic. Back in mid-March the market announced a number of risk-mitigating measures, including asking people who felt sick to stay home, plus mandating folks not touch products and instead point to what they want from vendor stands. As COVID-19 spread, the market unveiled more guidelines including a recommendation to wear a face mask and a directive to maintain six feet of distance from other people.
Horne says about 95 percent of customers at the market are wearing face masks, and while folks can't eat or sample food at the market, they can purchase prepared food to-go, along with the usual wares. People are also purchasing more than ever; Horne says he estimates 25 percent of all customers are leaving "with a substantial amount of groceries."
At Westchase, Carey says most customers are now coming in wearing masks, even going back to their cars to grab theirs after seeing so many people walking around with them strapped to their faces. The Westchase market is also denying samples, but Carey says it hasn't affected sales.
"I believe people are using the markets as a way to get their fresh food and expand (their usage of) the local environment," he says. "We're a very diverse community in the Westchase district, and we provide prepared foods that accommodate our community, but we're just getting bigger and more robust."
Bigger also means the number of vendor applications coming in. Both Urban Harvest and Westchase report more folks are asking to be a part of their markets. The former has added vendors selling product like rice, grass-fed butter, and flour, while the latter has brought in a coffee roaster and candle-maker. Both markets have also seen established restaurants and cooks apply and join. For instance, Feges BBQ has come into Urban Harvest.
"I don't think we have the room to open the gates to every restaurant," Horne says. "But that's been a great thing to do: to help some of our longtime supporters, giving them that extra space to sell on Saturdays."
Are all of these changes likely to last forever? Hard to say, but those who run the markets seem to think the future of the farmers market is more visible today. At the very least, the markets have evolved, and people definitely want to be there.
"We've always referred to it as a food church," says Horne. "Even if it's somewhat transactional, at some point it's just good seeing your favorite vendor. So there's an underlying social element to the market that's still thriving but in another capacity."