Nearly every Saturday morning since 2007, Durham Farmers’ Market transformed Durham Central Park.
Usually, vendors rolled into Central Park Pavilion early, 6 or 7 a.m. From vans, trucks and cars they unloaded tents, tables and stands to display squashes, greens, breads, jewelry and more local fare. By 8 a.m. customers arrived, quickly spawning a crowded mass that mingled, dashed and clumped, like ants navigating their mound.
That charming, chaotic ritual came to an abrupt end on Saturday, March 21. No vendors, no shoppers until May.
In between, the market had to overcome a turnover in its leadership and hatch a new COVID-style way of doing business.
Despite significant changes, the market remains a place where people connect.
“It just feels really important to be here,” said Izzy Pezzulo, a vendor for Red Trail Grains. “Not only to be making the money that you need to continue farming, but also to just show up for the community and feed people in a way that feels safer to them.”
When pandemic-related shutdown orders started in Durham, Susan Sink, market manager at the time, was communicating with Deputy City Manager Bo Ferguson about spacing proposals to keep the market open. She explained that every item would be pre-packaged and vendors would be spaced 20 feet apart, she said.
But city officials made the decision early in the pandemic to close all city-owned facilities built for groups or gatherings. Sink was told that the city owns Durham Central Park where the Durham Farmers’ Market takes place and Mayor Steve Schewel had made clear the farmers’ market had to close to protect public health, she said.
There was no market for the next six weeks.
“We felt that we needed to make sure that we weren’t drawing this huge crowd until there were safety protocols in place,” Schewel said.
To reopen, Sink had weekly phone calls with officials to discuss new regulations. There was a large group call between the Farmers’ Market staff and vendors too. Establishing long term changes in market operations in March was difficult, because no one was sure how long the pandemic would last.
“I do think the biggest challenge was mindset,” Sink said. “People did not believe how lethal the virus could be. And no one believed the situation would last so long, so they wanted easy stopgaps and not long-term marketing and distribution solutions.”
Jack Pleasant, president of the Farmers’ Market board of directors, went from attending monthly meetings about the market to spending 20 to 30 hours a week trying to get it reopened.
“We were dealing with things that were flying every day in different directions,” Pleasant said.
To add to the complexity, some staff left. Angel Woodrum left her assistant market manager job because she was worried about her safety at work, Pleasant said. Sink stayed on as manager until May and helped with the reopening, but also decided to leave.
Emily-Kate Hannapel, a former assistant market manager who was working as an interior designer, volunteered to manage the market for two months during the search for a new manager.
“It was pretty scary because from one perspective, you’re trying to do everything that you’ve been told to create a safe space and a safe event. But especially in May, there was still so much that we didn’t know about the virus and how it spread,” Hannapel said.
Despite the uncertainty, Hannapel said she felt the responsibility to try to make sure the Durham Farmers’ Market operated through the pandemic.
“The whole point of having a really strong local food system is so that it can step up and work in moments of crisis,” she said. “We have all of these farmers who are growing food and we have people who want food and who are nervous about going into grocery stores. It just felt like this moment that our local food system, which is so strong here, really had to step up to meet that demand.”
In July, board members appointed Michelle Greene the new market manager. She had been a loyal customer of the farmers’ market for ten years, but had never worked on the management side. Catherine Rudolph was hired in August to replace Angel Woodrum as assistant market manager.
“I knew the atmosphere, but you think you know how a market works just by going and visiting, but you don’t,” Greene said. “It’s a very different world being a visitor compared to managing.”
Before COVID-19, the market was also open on Wednesdays from April until October. On May 2, only the Saturday market reopened to the public.
It looks a lot different.
The market is now “one-way,” with one entrance and one exit. Everyone must travel the vendors’ loop in the same direction to avoid getting dangerously close to anyone else.
Customers must remain six feet apart. They are not supposed to touch products, but must wait for a vendor to help. There is a hand-washing station at the front of the market, and volunteers are posted to make sure customers are aware of the rules.
Vendor stands stand at least 10 feet apart. Because of that, the market can now accommodate up to 40 vendors; in the past it hosted around 60.
Reducing the number of vendors from 40 to 60 happened naturally, because a number of vendors, such as Elodie Farms, chose to conduct their sales through online, contactless pick-up instead of through the farmers’ market, according to Greene.
“We make a map every week for what the market will look like that weekend so that the customers have a guide for how they can get in and out the fastest, if they do feel that they want to run in and run out,” said Greene.
The faster-paced approach makes the farmers’ market a safer shopping experience, but can also make it more difficult for customers to connect the way they used to.
“I come to the farmers’ market almost every Saturday because it’s my sense of community, it’s a place to touch in with where I live,” customer Meredith Emmett said. “It’s just harder to talk to people and recognize people. I did just see someone I haven’t seen in a long, long time but it doesn’t have the same spirit of connection. It feels more like I’m grocery shopping as opposed to coming to the town square.”
Despite the market’s redesign for social distancing, vendors say that it still offers them some much-needed social interaction.
“Despite the circumstances,” the market is “really life giving,” said Pezzulo, the Red Tail Grains vendor
Pezzulo formed a friendship from the market with Ahbi Bügger, who manages the stand for Celebrity Dairy, when they began trading their products with each other.
Bügger had been farming in Peru and Brazil for six months when she noticed other people scrambling to find flights back to the United States. She realized she needed to leave, so she boarded a flight to North Carolina, where her parents live, and moved to Pittsboro, which is home to the Celebrity Dairy Farm.
“When I first started, people would come up, buy the cheese and leave — barely a hello was even said,” Bügger said. “And now, there are some lines and some waiting because people stay a minute.”
Bügger still prioritizes a safe shopping experience, but has appreciated that her customers are willing to spend some more time when they stop at her stand.
“The fear is subsiding a little bit, which I think is awesome,” she said. “We need to continue to stay vigilant about safety, but it also makes my heart feel a little warm that people are really committed to supporting us and committed to connecting with the farmers that sell their products and intentionally making connections.”
Jennifer Tolliver, a farmer at Botanist and Barrel who manages their stand on Saturdays, decided that leaving her house for the market was worth the risk because of the mental health benefits.
“We have medical professionals in the family, and we talked to them about it and everyone seems pretty much on the same page as far as the fact that being outdoors, socially distanced, plus masks — it’s a pretty low risk,” she said.
The market is expected to remain open through the winter season, still outdoors in Durham Central Park. Current market restrictions will likely remain.
“I do have a call with the Durham County extension office every few weeks and we go over what’s new. The winter has different things that may come,” Greene said. “We used to think we could predict things and now we don’t.”
9th Street reporter Kathleen Hobson can be reached at email@example.com
At top: The pandemic has altered foot traffic and much more at Durham Farmers’ Market. What once was free form is now tightly choreographed. Photo by Henry Haggart