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From farm to car

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Collingswood Farmers’ Market adapts to the times

In the face of unprecedented adversity, the Collingswood Farmers’ Market has rebounded with all the determination of spring’s annual rebirth. 

The longtime tradition has been a local mainstay since 2000 and has grown in both size and popularity for the past two decades as it connects the area’s farmers with customers eager for healthy, natural food options.  

This year’s installment, however, is making a noticeably different return thanks to the necessity of social distancing. Gone are the crowds. Foot traffic and bicyclers are turned away as a safety measure. There are no more arm-in-arm couples or families strolling from vendor to vendor in pursuit of perfect produce or charmed by a tantalizing impulse buy, as pre-orders are now the operational standard.

“We’re trying to help all of our residents, who won’t get the social aspect of the market but will get that benefit of fresh food and something that’s become a normal part of life,” says Mayor James Maley, who was among those working feverishly behind the scenes to bring some version of the market to town. “It’s more about the psychological impact: It’s not another thing that’s cancelled.”

When the Collingswood Farmers’ Market kicked off its 2020 season May 2 at its temporary home in the Scottish Rite Auditorium’s parking lot, visitors were already attuned to the new procedures. To account for the demand the market typically saw as a once-a-week event, it’s now divided into four sessions: Saturday mornings from 8 to 10; Saturday afternoons from 12 to 2; Wednesday mornings from 8 to 10; and Friday mornings from 8 to 10. Vendors are grouped by day, so market-goers can order from up to five farms and pick up their locally sourced produce, plants or meat with one trip to the market. 

At the entry tent, customers are given an identifying card so vendors can see them coming and prep their order before they even arrive at the distribution station. Market Director David Hodges, a 10-year veteran of the farmer’s market, says that each buyer spends a minute or two having their order loaded directly into their trunk, averaging less than 20 minutes at the Scottish Rite itself overall.

“We’re using the parking lot to its best effect, we’re getting people in and out,” he confirms. “To be honest, it couldn’t be much smoother than it is. It is running beautifully well.”

But it took a lot of work to make sure the farm-to-car model itself works.

Behind the scenes of  a seismic shift

Numerous ideas had been explored and vetted for nearly two months, including an in-depth examination of how to even host the market in the first place. Knowing full well that crops still need to be harvested, residents still need fresh food and the community needs an emotional win, there was no question for decision-makers that the market would return in 2020.

“The farmers have put it pretty succinctly to us: The crops don’t know that there’s a pandemic,” Maley says. 

According to Maley, who worked with an emergency management team that included representation from police, fire, local government, borough and market staff, it took daily conversations to make sure the market’s safe-for-social-distancing incarnation was as successful as a debut event can be.

“Doing anything for the first time, there’s always something you didn’t think of,” Maley notes.

Indeed, the market hasn’t been without its hiccups, which Hodges regards as learning experiences. 

“We had a terrible backup on opening day in the afternoon,” he says. “But we fixed that problem. We’ve had a second Saturday afternoon with the same farms since then, and May 9 went as well as the afternoon of May 2 went poorly.”

A community’s labor of love

With a modified event, some community buy-in was necessary in making sure the market pivoted quickly enough to ensure its vendors had a place to sell their goods, once the market was cleared for operations by both Gov. Phil Murphy’s standards and the Camden County Board of Heath.

Hodges doesn’t waste a second in recognizing everyone who makes the market a successful community effort. 

“A big shout-out to the Friends of the Farmers’ Market volunteers, without whom we simply could not have made this happen, to the crossing guards from the borough to the police department … to the crew of the Scottish Rite Auditorium for their massive support, and of course to the borough and the borough commissioners for approving this plan to do a market at all,” Hodges says.

It was important to the borough to keep as many people employed as possible in these difficult times, according to Maley. 

“We tried to keep as many people from the Scottish Rite working as possible,” Maley says. “We’re also using some of our crossing guards to help direct traffic. We’ve been doing our best to keep them on and employed, as well.” 

Even the farms themselves have taken on more responsibility for an admittedly diminished return so far. 

“They are grateful for the opportunity, they really appreciate all of the effort that we put into the market but they are overburdened by the chore of getting orders together and they’re selling less than they would have in more traditional market years,” Hodges says. “But it’s at least an opportunity to sell to retail customers and it makes it worth their while so far.”

But a chance collaboration is one of the biggest reasons the farmer’s market was able to adapt to its current drive-thru model.

“We wouldn’t have been able to do it at all without the participation, partnering and cooperation of BlocDelivery.com,” Hodges says of the startup company. He credits Bloc Delivery for handling online orders for certain vendors, helping the market establish a one-stop shop website and even delivering food orders to Collingswood, Haddonfield and Haddon Township residents whose limited mobility prevents them from attending the modified market. 

“I didn’t know how I was going to manage until Bloc Delivery showed up on the scene with an offer of help that we immediately accepted,” Hodges adds.

What the future holds

So what is the long-term plan for the farmers’ market?

“Only a fool would predict,” Hodges says. “We’ll get back to the market as usual as soon as it’s safe to do so and not a moment before.”

Hodges says that while the original Collingswood Farmers’ Market was a beloved mainstay and a strong event, there is always room for improvement and a need to stay aligned with current needs.

“My attitude is, to heck with what used to be the best conceivable market,” he says. “If we don’t come out of this stronger and better, it’s a wasted opportunity. My goal is to plan a market that’s even better than the one we had before.”

Because, whether the world is in the throes of a pandemic or not, Hodges says the Collingswood Farmers’ Market is about ensuring people have access to fresh, certifiably local food.

“There’s a lot of people in our community now, especially those stuck in their homes or are immunocompromised, for whom fresh produce is medicine,” he says. “We feel wonderful about the ability to provide that. Even though it’s a lot of effort, it’s well worth it to keep people healthy and safe and provided with fresh food.” n

Visit collingswoodmarket.com to find out more about this year’s farm-to-car Collingswood Farmers’ Market. 

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