Mar 30, 2020
Minimizing risks at farmers’ markets, on-farm markets, U-pick, produce auctions

Each day brings new information and concern about COVID-19 and its impact on our lives. If the threat of this rapidly spreading viral disease lingers, social distancing and limitations on public gatherings could adversely impact the state’s most prominent market channels for local produce, including farmers markets, you-pick operations, and produce auctions.

Produce operations should consider the possibility that this virus may continue to be a threat well into the marketing season and take action to develop a plan to safeguard their customers and workers.

Farmers’ markets and on-farm markets

Farmers markets are largely open-air venues that might reduce some transmission of the virus among and between growers and customers. Wider spaces between vendors and growers may allow for more air circulation and additional room to maintain social distancing.

Growers are encouraged to follow methods for preventing transmission of coronavirus during sales and distribution of farm products. Consider the following recommendations for your operation.

Prepare market and individual stands

  • Have fully stocked hand-washing and sanitizing stations in place at multiple locations and post signs that inform everyone where hand sanitizing materials are available and that show the correct way to wash hands.
  • Put up signs and provide information on websites and social media to explain any changes, delivery options, or extra precautions taken to limit exposure to the coronavirus. For example, instruct customers not to handle food. Package cheese and eggs for customers, even if they are individually packaged. Open egg cartons for customers to see the eggs they are getting instead of having them handle multiple cartons.
  • Consider alternate pick-up, drive-through, or delivery options to keep crowd levels low.
  • Encourage customers to avoid lining up too close to each other when making purchases.
  • Pre-package bags of fruits, vegetables, and other items to limit shoppers’ handling of food and so that customers move along quickly.
  • Separate stands if possible, to limit crowds – try to maintain a separation between stands of at least six feet apart. Consider limiting the number of customers within your market at one time in the case of “panic shopping”.
  • If possible, have different persons handle products and money, or wash hands or use a hand sanitizer between these tasks.
  • Utilize card readers that allow customers to swipe their own credit cards, thus protecting both them and your employees. Disable the signature function on your point of sale (POS) system to limit contact from multiple customers.
  • Use nonporous tablecloths and clean and sanitize them regularly.
  • Do not allow customers to sample products.
  • Eliminate market events, children’s activities, and gathering areas and encourage customers to not linger in the market.
  • Eliminate eating areas and gently direct customers to take prepared foods home to avoid crowds.

Prepare your workforce

  • Train your staff to regularly and frequently wash their hands with soap and water, including scrubbing for 20 seconds, especially after they blow their nose, cough, or sneeze.
  • Have hand sanitizer dispensers readily available and provide signage to alert vendors and customers as to the importance of hand sanitation and where they can find sanitizing materials on site.
  • Train them to maintain at least a 6-foot distance between them and customers –that’s two to three arm-lengths.
  • Stagger your lunchtimes or provide additional space to increase distancing of employees.
  • Anyone on the premises who shows symptoms of a severe cold or flu, such as high fever, coughing, and difficult breathing need to stay at home. Consider the possibility that you may have a shortage of workers. You may need a plan to hire temporary workers.
  • Encourage your staff to not handle customers’ reusable bags. You may wish to set up an area to the side of the display area where customers can pay for their purchase.
  • Train your staff to know that visitors over the age of 60, or that have pre-existing conditions including diabetes and other chronic diseases, are at a higher risk for becoming ill if they acquire the virus.
  • Consider offering early hour shopping for these higher-risk customers.

Sanitize contact surfaces

  • Frequently disinfect table-tops, door handles, cash boxes or credit card machines, shopping baskets, and other contact surfaces with an EPA-registered sanitizer sprays or wipes labeled as effective against viruses. Do not purchase sanitizers from suppliers who claim their products kill viruses without showing proof of efficacy.
  • Frequently clean and sanitize common gathering places such as restrooms, break rooms, meeting rooms.

Regulatory considerations

If you are considering opening an on-farm stand for fresh produce, shelf-stable packaged foods like jams and jellies, baked goods, or your farm’s own eggs, you do not need a food safety license. You may visit the PDA website for more information about retail food licenses. If you are relocating a farmers market temporarily due to COVID-19, the PA Department of Agriculture will not require you to obtain a new food safety license. If it is a permanent relocation, the application is available from the PDA website.

U-pick operations

Visitors that come to your farm or orchard need to understand how they can prevent transmission of COVID-19. Consider the following ways you can keep you and your customers safe.

  • Make sure you communicate to your customers that changes to your normal operations are in place because you care about them and your employees.
  • Advertise these changes early and often.
  • Plan for plenty of signage in multiple locations that clearly communicate the changes you have in place and the reasons you are doing so.
  • Ask your customers to wash their hands before and after picking.
  • Have fully stocked hand-washing and sanitizing stations in place at multiple locations and post signs that show the correct way to wash hands.
  • Regularly spray or wipe down surfaces such as plastic bins and baskets, table-tops, table-tops, door handles, cash boxes, and credit card machines. that you or your customers contact with EPA-registered sanitizers labeled as effective against viruses. Do not purchase sanitizers from suppliers who claim their products kill viruses without showing proof of efficacy.
  • Schedule harvest times to limit the number of people picking. If you have a mailing list, think of separating harvest times within a day or between days by scheduling names in alphabetical order, or by zip code. Also, consider how you are going to handle “exceptions” to a schedule for the customers who request them.
  • Devise a plan for keeping customers separated by at least a 6-foot distance while in the field – that’s about two to three arm-lengths. For example, use differently colored flags to mark rows open for picking so that adequate personal distance is maintained. This has the added benefit of the field not getting all “picked out” at one time.r orchard not getting all “picked out” at one time.
  • Know that people over the age of 60 or that have pre-existing conditions, including diabetes and other chronic illnesses, are at a higher risk for becoming ill if they acquire the virus. Consider scheduling separate harvest times for these individuals.
  • If you normally provide rides to the field, you might want to do so for only small family groups at a time. Encourage people to walk to the field if possible and consider having nearby picking areas for those who can’t.
  • Instead of customers bringing their own containers, provide them in one weight or size such as pulp quarts and cardboard flats. Change the pricing structure to accommodate their use and allow you to cover your costs. This will allow a quick count of containers when charging at checkout, and not only increases efficiency but also minimizes handling of containers by multiple people.
  • Utilize card readers that allow customers to swipe their own credit cards, thus protecting both them and your employees. Disable the signature function on your point of sale (POS) system to limit contact from multiple customers.
  • If you expect that lines for checkout may form, devise a way to encourage customers to remain separated. These could be markers, or spatially separated displays of pictures or posters with interesting facts that encourage people to look (and not touch) while in line.
  • Have enough employees present to work with your customers to make sure rules are followed to the extent possible.
  • Have a backup plan in mind for alternative ways to market your crop, should this become necessary.

Alternatives to direct sales

You might consider changing your business model and the way you interact with your customers to minimize exposure to COVID-19. Be aware that some level of personal interaction is necessary, so keep in mind the recommendations for social distancing, hand-washing, and surface disinfection already described. Consider the following marketing alternatives.

  • Sell by appointment through a web commerce site or through social media are ways to minimize crowds. Where broadband signals are weak, consider phone or fax sales.
  • Use the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model for packing prearranged food shares to be picked up by the buyer at a designated time.
  • Home delivery is another option. You can take orders as already described and drop off boxes at individual residences.
  • Consider working with other farms or markets in your area with existing online ordering or delivery infrastructures in place.

Produce auctions

Many of the same recommendations for preventing virus transmission at farmers markets, farm markets, and you-pick operations apply to produce auctions. Growers and customers often congregate together before, during, and after the auction process. It is important to consider, to the extent possible, what you can do to minimize chances for coronavirus transmission. Proper hand hygiene recommendations are simple. But the physical proximity of people during the display and bidding process can make social distancing difficult.

Think about some of the ideas below for minimizing virus exposure at auctions. It may not be possible to follow all of them with the resources currently on hand, but any steps you take serve to contribute to minimizing the spread of COVID-19 among and between growers and buyers at produce auctions

  • Provide guidance and training to auction staff and auctioneers on the importance of frequent hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after they blow their nose, cough, or sneeze.
  • Have hand sanitizer dispensers readily available and provide signage to alert visitors and buyers on the importance of hand sanitation. Inform everyone where hand sanitizing materials are available within the building.
  • Use EPA-registered sanitizer sprays or wipes that are labeled as effective against viruses to disinfect surfaces that come into contact with visitors. These may include plastic bins and baskets, table-tops, door handles, and cash boxes or credit card machines. Do not purchase sanitizers from suppliers who claim their products kill viruses without showing proof of efficacy.
  • Stagger staff lunchtimes or provide additional space to increase distancing of employees.
  • Anyone on the premises who shows symptoms of a severe cold or flu, such as high fever, coughing and difficult breathing must go home.
  • Know that growers, buyers, and staff over the age of 60 or that have pre-existing conditions, including diabetes and other chronic illnesses, are at a higher risk for becoming ill if they acquire the virus.
  • To the extent possible, try to maintain social distance recommendations by keeping auctioneers and buyers separated. Social distancing recommendations are to keep people at least 6 feet apart– that’s about two to three arm-lengths. For example, You might consider an arrangement where the auctioneer stays in one location and carts of produce make their way down an aisle in such a way that minimizes crowding of buyers.
  • Another idea to consider is to encourage auction purchases through proxy buyers who bid for several companies. This would reduce the number of people attending the auction, while not limiting the actual number of buyers. It’s one way to keep sales volumes up when limiting the size of groups is the goal.
  • Consider working with the auctioneer to offer on-line bidding. Many auctioneers are already conducting estate sales this way and they might be able to adapt to on-line produce auction sales. This option is certainly not possible for everyone, but it may be one way to maintain social distancing so that buyers are not exposing themselves or others to COVID-19.

References and resources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Coronavirus (COVID-19).

Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture (PDA), “COVID-19 GUIDANCE: Farmers Markets & On-Farm Markets.”

Luke Laborde, professor of food science and Thomas Ford, Extension educator, Penn State University


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