UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As the effects of COVID-19 have rippled throughout the country, disrupting the supply chains of numerous large-scale supermarkets and grocery stores, many consumers have looked to local shops and markets to fill their essential needs.
The Farm Market Finder, an interactive tool developed by Penn State Extension, is aimed at helping Pennsylvania consumers find farmers markets in their area.
“The map shows all of the farmers markets throughout Pennsylvania,” said Brian Moyer, extension education program associate and the director of PA Farm Markets, an organization that promotes the growth of Pennsylvania’s farm and farmers markets. “Any Pennsylvanian can use it to zoom in and find markets in their county.”
To collect this information, Moyer said, he and his team parsed an old list of self-reporting markets from the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, researching each one to make sure that the information was accurate.
To simplify things, Moyer and his team sorted markets into three categories: on-farm retail markets that could be as small as a roadside stand or as large as a self-owned store, open-air farmers markets that are open weekly, and indoor public markets that are open multiple days a week and remain open year-round.
In the future, Moyer added, the map could be edited to indicate which markets work with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, or it could be used to measure the gross sales data for individual markets, helping to discern their collective economic impact on the commonwealth.
For now, however, the Penn State Extension energy, business and community vitality unit, which is responsible for the creation of the Farm Market Finder, has been focused on facilitating markets’ responses to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Immediately after Pennsylvania issued guidelines for farmers markets, the team translated that information into materials and webinars for the benefit of farmers markets.
“This was very important, because we were basically asking farmers markets to do the opposite of what they’ve been designed to do,” Moyer said. “We usually think of them as gathering places for the community, places where we can enjoy our time together, but now these markets were being asked to maintain social distance and move customers through as quickly as possible.”
On top of encouraging farmers markets to adopt new practices, such as online ordering and no-contact shopping, Moyer’s team began and continue to run a weekly forum in which market managers can ask questions and discuss successful strategies, streamlining their collective response to the pandemic.
In any case, Moyer said, the importance of farmers markets has been highlighted by the supply chain issues associated with the COVID-19 crisis.
“Once we had that disruption in our conventional food system, the demand for farmers markets went up,” said Moyer. “Because they use local food sources, farmers markets always have been consistent, and if the conventional food system continues to be disrupted, farmers markets only will become more important.”
According to Moyer, demand was so high that some markets, which had been operating on their winter schedule, went from opening once a month or biweekly to opening on a weekly basis.
However, though farmers markets carry an obvious appeal for consumers, especially at this moment, Moyer believes that they also are key for the vendors themselves.
“Farmers markets give small- and medium-sized farms access to the marketplace. It’s like an instant focus group,” Moyer said. “You learn if your community is interested in what you have or not. It allows you to grow, to carry consistent, quality products, and it always will be the cheapest storefront that a vendor can participate in.”
In Moyer’s view, farmers markets are integral both to farms and communities, and he hopes that this tool will both help consumers find local farmers markets in their area and encourage them to continue shopping there after the pandemic’s effects have faded.
“Farmers markets recently have been attracting people who never have been to these markets before,” Moyer said. “We want them to stay.”
The Farm Market Finder can be found at https://extension.psu.edu/farm-market-finder.