Asparagus is in season right now. So are carrots and pea shoots. The sweet potatoes, says Durham Farmers Market manager Susan Sink, have been especially spectacular this season. 

“As sweet as I can ever remember for many years,” she says. “A perfect year for them.”

In North Carolina, farmers markets, classified as essential “human service operations,” are allowed to stay open under Governor Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order. Farmers markets in Raleigh and Carrboro have seen thinner crowds and heavier restrictions, but have stayed open throughout the coronavirus pandemic. 

But Durham has imposed stricter measures, and for the past two weeks, the Durham Farmers Market has been closed as its managers work with the city to come up with a system that keeps the public safe while reckoning with local and federal regulations that change on a daily basis. 

While farmers markets are an essential source of fresh food and a part of the supply chain, they’re also an important communal space. If not for COVID-19, the Durham Farmers Market would just be starting to hum with activity as customers made languid laps around the market, picking up produce and putting it back down. Shaking hands. Handing over cash. 

“This is not an easy problem,” Sink says. “This is real; this is life-threatening. And I take it that seriously, and every other market manager takes it that seriously. We don’t shut lightly.”

The Durham Farmers Market hosts more than 65 vendors and has been a hallmark of downtown Durham since its founding in 1999. Sink says that many of the farmers who rely on weekly markets and local restaurants have pivoted to pre-ordering, curbside pickup, and home-delivery models. 

It’s a challenging adjustment: Food that’s been grown for markets and restaurants isn’t necessarily tailored for CSAs. It’s also not a profitable pivot, Sink says—many farmers don’t have the staff and vehicles for delivery, and they’re cutting their losses. But they are getting food out of the field and into the hands of people. 

It’s not only about protecting customers: Many farmers are at an especially high risk of contracting COVID-19 because of their age. Nearly one-third of America’s farmers are over the age of 65, according to the USDA. Sink says that the vendor makeup at the Durham Farmers Market reflects this, and the elderly demographic makes her even more cautious when it comes to figuring out new protocols.

Carrboro Farmers Market manager Maggie Funkhouser says that the town has been “extremely supportive” of keeping the market open, though not without necessary alterations. Vendors are now spaced 20 feet apart. All customers must walk in a specific enter-and-exit flow; gone are the days of milling between booths. Food is pre-packaged to avoid unnecessary touching. Contactless payment and pre-ordering is preferred. There are no samples; a “get in, get out” attitude is encouraged. 

But even though market trips are often people’s one precious outing, Funkhouser says that customers have largely been supportive: They seem to want to stay safe and to keep farmers safe and in business. 

“It is a critical time for farmers and their crops, and farmers markets provide an extraordinary and invaluable link between producers and consumers,” Funkhouser says. “I truly believe that, in many ways, we are safer than grocery stores.”

The Carrboro Farmers Market is encouraging turnout from low-income shoppers by offering “triple bucks” to EBT customers: $10 from an EBT card translates to $30 in fresh food. A cash match is also offered for EBT customers who are out of money on their cards. 

Sink says that the town of Durham has approved the market’s Emergency Operations Plan, and she hopes to have it operating safely again soon, although it will look a little different than it did before. 

“When customers come to the farmers market, we know, from surveying nationally, that they like that one-on-one relationship that they have with a farmer,” Sink says. “They’re going to go up and hug them and tell them they really missed them or that they really enjoyed what they bought last week. We have to remove that social piece from their behavior. Now, immediately. And that is a super-difficult thing to do.”

To find fresh produce and support a local farm, you can visit local farmers market sites to find a list of vendors doing deliveries. The Carolina Farm Stewardship’s website also has a map of every on-farm pickup available in the state. 

Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at 

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