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Farmers market moves from Park-it to park

The Saranac Lake Farmers Market, held on summer Saturdays in Riverside Park, is normally a place to meet and visit as well as to shop, as seen here, but that won’t necessarily apply to this year’s socially distanced market, which begins in the park Saturday. (Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)

SARANAC LAKE — The Saranac Lake Village Farmers Market will be back in Riverside Park on Saturday, but it won’t be the leisurely, crowded gathering it usually is, where people do as much socializing as shopping.

There will be plenty of rules to ensure everyone’s safety amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We want everybody to get everything as quickly as possible and get out of there so they’re not at risk and our vendors aren’t at risk,” farmers market committee member Kelly Hofschneider said.

Park-it worked

The pandemic uprooted the market from its indoor winter location in the Hotel Saranac lobby, but the market’s innovative organizers quickly converted it to a model they called the Farmers Park-it. Customers ordered items from regional producers using an online form, which was emailed to regulars. They were billed online. Then on Saturday, market day, they pulled their vehicles up to the back door of the hotel, where mask-wearing vendors and organizers gave them what they had ordered. The customers didn’t have to get out of their cars.

The Park-it succeeded beyond expectations.

“It was a ton more work for us as a committee to manage,” but it attracted a whole new crop of customers, according to Jacob Vennie-Vollrath, a committee member who is also a vendor; he and his wife own Moonstone Farm between Saranac Lake and Bloomingdale. “Seventy-five percent of the people we have never seen at the farmers market before. Basically it was an opportunity, I think because of the convenience but also because of the safety.”

Hofschneider said Cori Dean from Small Town Cultures and Courtney Grimes-Sutton from Mace Chasm Farm were the driving forces behind the Park-it.

“I have to say, at the beginning when they decided to do this, I thought, I’m not sure this is a good idea,” Hofschneider said. She was happy to be proven wrong.

“We got a lot of interest from other farmers markets from across the state and even outside the state that wanted to create a similar model,” she said, “but moving into the summer, there’s a lot more vendors … and there’d also be a lot more customers.”

Pivot from Park-it

Many vendors were reluctant to give up the profitable Park-it, but others successfully argued that they need and deserve to sell their food in person again, the way supermarkets do, Vennie-Vollrath said.

“When we talk to the vendors, their short answer is, why should Aldi, why should Walmart be able to sell their goods to customers and we can’t?” he said.

He said fewer people touch the produce, from source to customer, at a farmers market than at a supermarket.

“Our vendors are safer … in terms of fewer folks touching your product before it gets in your hands,” he said.

Nevertheless, he isn’t sure all vendors will sell more product at Riverside Park than they did at the Park-it, at least not at first.

“There’s so many unknowns right now,” he said. “I guess time will tell.”

Rules

Rules for customers (see accompanying list) will include requirements for masks and 6-foot social distancing, one-way traffic, and prohibitions on dogs, bikes, shopping groups larger than two people and touching the produce. You’ll have to judge tomatoes with your eyes and on faith rather than by feeling them.

Vendors must wear masks and gloves, keep their booths 15 feet apart and sanitize them scrupulously.

And only vendors selling food, beverages soap and other things deemed essential are allowed for now, which means craft vendors are out.

“It’s sad we can’t support those people as well, but that’s kind of a New York state mandate,” Hofschneider said.

There will also be no selling of food or drinks to be consumed on site.

There should be 20 booths to shop at. Twenty-seven have been approved as essential, but seven are not expected to show up for the first few Saturdays, organizers say.

“It’ll probably be a little chaotic the first couple of markets, and hopefully everything will come together,” Hofschneider said. “I’m hoping all of our customers will be patient with us.”

Local food trend

Vennie-Vollrath said there is a trend right now of people buying more of their food from local farms. He’s seeing it at his own farm as well.

“Our farm store, we usually don’t pick up until now, but since March we have been sold out of several things,” he said.

At the Park-it, he said, “not only were they selling more things to more folks, but people were purchasing more volume.”

That’s especially true of meat.

“With the price of meat going up, the people purchasing local meats has skyrocketed,” Vennie-Vollrath said.

The boost came at a time when local farmers really needed it. Normally they rely on selling food to restaurants during the lean winter and spring, but restaurants were shuttered amid the pandemic. Yet Vennie-Vollrath said one farmer told him, “I’ve never had so much money in my bank account than this year.”

The market, run by the AuSable Valley Grange, only allows vendors that make their own products, and only those from less than 120 miles away.

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