With the seasonal opening of the Saturday morning, open-air Main Street Farmers Market now postponed until May 16, the affiliated, online Statesboro Market2Go, which operates year-round, has been modified to provide a drive-up service that asks customers to remain in their cars.
In its first week operating in this new mode, the Market2Go saw its orders, which had hovered just over $1,000 a week, quadruple. Then, in its second week, orders fulfilled during Thursday afternoon’s extended three-hour pick-up time reached $10,500, roughly ten times Market2Go’s typical past weekly average.
Of course, the germ of the transformation, quite literally, was COVID-19. With demands for social distancing, farmers market planners faced hints that they should simply cancel the in-person seasonal market.
“We were trying to figure out the best way to keep the market open but keep it safe for everyone,” said Becky Davis, executive director of the Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau, or SCVB.
The solution emerged from a conversation between Davis and Main Street Farmers Market Manager Relinda Walker. The Farmers Market officially operates under Downtown Statesboro Development Authority oversight, but the SCVB has handled the market’s publicity efforts for the past two years, and since February 2019 has also hosted Market2Go’s delivery of produce for customer pick-up each Thursday.
Until two weeks ago, customers went inside the building to pick up their purchases. When Walker and others involved looked at farmers markets statewide, they found that some were simply closing.
“Others have found modified procedures or venues so that they continue and they use the idea of claiming essential services,” Walker said. “But when we looked at our situation, we felt that we could better provide that service through our Market2Go, so we immediately set about modifying that process and getting in touch with our vendors and then later, with Becky’s help, getting the word out to customers.”
The result has been a curbside loading system that this week had about 180 customers – more than triple the average on past pick-up evenings – drive through the SCVB parking lot and around the building between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m.
“We’ve had a great response from our vendors,” Walker said. “They are coming up with more products; we’ve got more vendors on.”
How it works
The list of 50 participating “growers” can be found at statesboromarket2go.locallygrown.net. Fresh vegetables are part of what’s offered, but other products range from meat butchered locally and shrimp caught along the coast to baked goods, dairy products and artisan-made candles.
Shoppers sign up to create an account. Then they select from the vendors’ lists, now totaling more than 500 items, and place orders between 8 p.m. Friday and midnight Tuesday. Vendors deliver the products to the pick-up site Thursday.
With the new process, customers are emailed an hour when the market management would prefer that they pick up the order, either 4-5 p.m., 5-6 p.m. or 6-7 p.m. This is an attempt to spread out the traffic and the workload.
Walker greets customers at the ramp behind the Visitors Center, which is at 222 South Main St. and otherwise currently closed to the public. She asks the name of the person who placed the order, and relays it to farmers market employees inside the building, who bring out the ordered items.
Customers are asked not to get out of their cars, but to open the trunk or a back door for the market workers to place the items in the vehicle. A few drivers this week held up their names on a piece of paper rather than open the window.
The produce runners wash their hands between orders at sinks in the back of the Visitors Center, which was once a restaurant. But they do not wear gloves. Market2Go Coordinator Michelle Giddens explained why, citing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Basically, the idea is that dirty gloves are no better than dirty hands.
“If we used gloves, we would have to change gloves after each customer, which would be a lot of gloves to use when the hospital might need them,” Giddens said. “The CDC says handwashing is best, so we’re handwashing after each customer or whenever we touch anything that doesn’t belong to that customer. If we get new information, we’ll change to it, but that’s the recommendation right now.”
Help to farmers
The new bloom in the online market is providing an outlet for vendors who have lost the opportunity of the in-person market, which originally would have opened next Saturday, April 4.
It’s even more of a ray of light in an otherwise bleak situation for some specialized farmers. Southern Swiss Dairy, near Waynesboro, produces a range of pasteurized, but non-homogenized, milk from naturally fed cattle, and also buttermilk, cream, ice cream and beef.
Jimmy Franks and his wife and other family members operate the dairy, currently milking about 180 cows. With the colleges and universities now switching to online courses and restaurants either closed or reduced to drive-thru and delivery options, Southern Swiss’ overall sales have plummeted 80% and maybe more, Franks said.
“We did Emory University, we did Savannah College of Art and Design, and all of that’s closed, and we did a lot of restaurants,” he said. “That’s where most of our business was, and basically it’s gone to nothing now.”
Dairy farmers cannot stop milking their cows, seven days a week, he explained. Southern Swiss could sell milk it has no market for to a dairy co-op, but at greatly reduced prices. The co-op would collect the milk in a tanker truck, not sell it in Southern Swiss bottles.
But while still a small portion of the dairy’s usual sales, Statesboro Market2Go orders for Southern Swiss products were up by 400% this week.
“It’s really picked up the last two weeks, and we also do one in Augusta that’s really picked up,” Franks said. “I guess with the virus and everything, as long as everybody can just pick up and not go in the store and risk getting exposed, it’s just a win-win for everybody.”
The Augusta Locally Grown market that he mentioned operates similarly to Market2Go.
“Win-win” was also a description used by a relatively new Market2Go customer, Julie McCracken, in a phone interview Friday. She had shopped some at the in-person market last season, but joined the online market a little over a month ago, before the recent change in procedure.
Now she has become a convert, limiting her grocery store shopping to one visit each week to Aldi’s for things she cannot find through the online farm market.
“Buying at the farmers market … it’s a win-win,” McCracken said. “It supports our community businesses, and we’re getting really high-quality produce. It’s local, so it’s going to taste better.”
This week she ordered and picked up some B&J Farms chicken, some Hunter Cattle Company pork, Southern Swiss Dairy whole milk and whipping cream and, from area vegetable growers, fresh spinach, kale, tomatoes and carrots.
She shops for a family of four, also including her husband Dr. Mark McCracken and their two children, now young adults, one of whom is just back home from college. Dr. McCracken was one of the physicians who recently wrote to local officials and spoke to Statesboro City Council urging greater precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Julie McCracken approved of what she saw of Market2Go’s new approach.
“With the crowds, I know that it’s hard work for everybody that’s working the pickup, but the crowds are showing, I think, that everybody is trying their best to ‘A,’ support the community, and ‘B,’ they are trying to maintain that social distance,” she said. “It’s just good overall, for everybody.”
Traffic could become an issue if the market’s popularity continues to grow. Despite the effort to stagger pick-up times through an alphabetical assignment, more customers arrived in the middle hour Thursday, when up to four cars at a time waited to turn in from South Main Street.
One person reported a 45-minute wait, Walker said, but she added that 15 minutes was typical.
“We will probably be trying to come up with a creative solution,” she said.
Market2Go also has a Sylvania pick-up site, now outside the Victory Garden General Store, 5-5:45 p.m. each Thursday, and offers Statesboro and Bulloch County home delivery for an added fee.