Families peruse the variety of vendors at the Farmington Farmers Market Oct. 31, which has welcomed record attendance despite operating throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Families peruse the variety of vendors at the Farmington Farmers Market Oct. 31, which has welcomed record attendance despite operating throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo by Deb Jacques


Farmington Farmers Market has record year despite pandemic

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published November 10, 2020

 Patrons stroll through the Farmington Farmers Market at the Riley Park Sundquist Pavilion Oct. 31, which welcomed its 1 millionth customer earlier this year.

Patrons stroll through the Farmington Farmers Market at the Riley Park Sundquist Pavilion Oct. 31, which welcomed its 1 millionth customer earlier this year.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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FARMINGTON — When husband and wife Jacob and April Karl attended the first Farmington Farmers Market of the 2020 season May 16 — with only about 500 people in attendance, compared to its pre-pandemic normal of about 3,000 — they said it felt like a ghost town.

“Everyone was very quiet. I remember when I saw that it was really sad,” Jacob said.

After a first week with the market’s lowest attendance in recent years, market general manager Walt Gajewski was left with an ultimatum. The market could either cut back on its operations to meet the attendance numbers they were seeing, or it could continue full speed ahead and possibly risk overgrowing produce and losing money.

The market’s vendors told Gajewski they wanted to keep going.

“It turns out, hope is a good thing. Once the harvest started to come in, people became more comfortable with the outdoor shopping experience, (and) with our format and layout,” Gajewski said.

Flash forward to a week before the market’s season closed Oct. 31 and Gajewski had broken through last year’s overall attendance record of about 78,000 patrons.

He’s seen a roughly 7% attendance increase from the 2019 season, all while hampered by the restrictions of the pandemic.

Not only has the market had a record setting year for attendance, other milestones came along the way as well. The market welcomed its one millionth overall customer earlier in the season; it made space for new vendors to share their products; and it was granted a one-week extension by City Council to stay open until Nov. 7 due to its success.

Compliance and coordination by the customers, vendors and volunteer staff are what made many, if not all, of those milestones possible, Gajewski said.

“The mask-on rate at this market is just about 100%. It’s really, I think, the commitment and willingness of the community, the vendors (and) the volunteers to basically say, ‘We can do this,’” he said. “When the produce started to come in, the attendance just started to grow and grow.”

The market faced its fair share of adversity this year, with ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions passed down by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and the Farmers Market Association, but instead of sitting with those woes, Gajewski and his staff found ways to turn those problems into positives.

When state regulations required vendors to be positioned 6 feet apart, Gajewski was granted an additional 10,000 square feet of parking lot space to spread out the market. When patrons needed their fresh produce, but weren’t comfortable traversing the market to get it, volunteers were dispatched as personal shoppers and customers were offered curbside pickup. While touchless, no-contact shopping was thought to be a hindrance at a market, Gajewski said it turned out to be another highlight of customer service.

“There’s a positive in every negative,” he said. “So far, the public response has been overwhelmingly positive.”

In a time when almost every other summer and fall event has been cancelled, the market has most likely benefited from being one of the few weekly social gatherings customers can count on. It has provided patrons with a glimmer of normalcy in an otherwise precarious time.

“For the last few years, we’ve always gotten a pastry, a coffee and listened to music while our kid, now kids, would run around,” Jacob said. “This year when we couldn’t do that in the beginning, that felt so saddening, but when we could and did it felt like we could go back to something more normal.”

“It also feels really safe,” April added. “You can kind of stake out your own space. … We can safely take off our masks and things like that. It does feel more normal to do that. I love it.” April explained how the market has helped her mental health by giving her an activity to look forward to.

Jacob and April’s experiences at the market aren’t anomalous.

“We’re told by many customers that come in, and even the growers and vendors, that it’s something they look forward to every week. It’s a highlight for them, because there’s not much else to do,” Market Assistant Alexander Steward said.

For a market that’s been able to set records in a season stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic, is there any reason the market won’t continue to thrive next season? Gajewski doesn’t think so.

While Gajewski doesn’t foresee a large uptick in patrons and vendors next year, he does hope some of the other market staples, like events and community partnerships, will be able to return.

“Growth could renew itself next year with events and activities if the state so allows us to do that,” he said. “What we have demonstrated, for lack of that, we have a business model and we have an operational layout that the public has a lot of confidence and trust in, and support it. We know we can bring this model successfully back next year and continue on the path we’ve been.”

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