At Seattle farmers market, a taste of new normal – and fresh asparagus

Why We Wrote This

Markets have always been about more than commerce. They’re for the human connections, too. And they might help model a responsible path out of this crisis, as we try to balance economic, health, and social needs.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Market regular Holly Ferguson buys cider and rhubarb from farmer Jason Devela of Rockridge Orchards and Cidery at the University District Farmers Market as it reopens on April 18 in Seattle. The market was closed for six weeks amid the COVID-19 crisis.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The rules were a little different Saturday at one of Seattle’s beloved farmers markets. Shoppers couldn’t pick out their own produce. They waited stoically under overcast skies, 6 feet apart, in a line stretching down the block and around the corner. Hundreds signed a 14-point oath, including vows not to “chat up my favorite farmer.”

“I will offer them a smile and a wave,” it said.

But the fact that the market was open at all, for the first time in weeks, is a tentative step toward normalcy, in the first U.S. city hit hard by COVID-19. It’s a sign of how early, widespread social distancing has paid off in Washington state. And it’s a hopeful glimpse of a possible “new normal” ahead for a nation debating when and how to reopen the economy while protecting health. 

“This is a major test today,” says Sarah Schu, who works for Neighborhood Farmers Markets.

Chris Petry is selling sourdough bread made from his hard red wheat flour. “This is one of my favorite customers,” he says of Nora Lih, who confides, “I am just here to chat him up” – from 6 feet away.

“I am smiling,” Mr. Petry says from behind his mask.

It’s a signature Seattle moment. 

In a downpour early Saturday morning, Holly Ferguson and other marketgoers gather in hooded rain jackets, masks, and gloves. Grasping reusable cloth shopping bags, they stand stoically under overcast skies, 6 feet apart. The line stretches down the block and around the corner. A few seagulls squawk nearby as they land, wings flapping, in the wet, empty street.

The University District Farmers Market, a vibrant and beloved outdoor produce market popular in Seattle for more than 25 years, is about to reopen for the first time in six weeks – a welcome, if tentative, step toward normalcy in the first U.S. city hit hard by COVID-19, and a hopeful glimpse ahead for the nation.

Regulars like Ms. Ferguson pushed to reopen the market, and are now determined to make it work by following a slew of new health safety measures – with about 500 people even signing a 14-point “farmers market shoppers oath,” pledging to act responsibly on Saturday.

“I’d rather do this and have it be awkward, than have everybody just rip off their masks and run around and have to quarantine again,” she says.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Her orange rain hat dripping, Ms. Ferguson is ebullient and undeterred. “My whole weekend changed. I get to do something I love … that I do every Saturday morning. I know there is going to be asparagus – so yay!” she says, smiling under her mask.

The market opening is a sign of how early, widespread social distancing has paid off in Seattle and Washington state. Coronavirus fatalities are rising at a slower rate than in most other states, and hospitals have not been overwhelmed. In the capital Olympia on Sunday, about 2,000 protesters opposed the emergency lockdown, but most residents accept it.

“Washingtonians are complying with our ‘stay home, stay healthy’ initiative in mass numbers,” Gov. Jay Inslee said last week. “We have bent the curve down” and must drive it lower.

A leading model projects the state can safely consider relaxing the stay home order in mid-May, shifting to a containment strategy that relies on rigorous testing and contact tracing to stamp out any new outbreaks. “Fortunately for Washington, we have ended up on the lower end of the range probably because … Washingtonians were adjusting their behavior even before the social distancing mandates came out,” says Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. IHME has used mobility data to gauge how much people are isolating themselves.

The Seattle market is also a microcosm for the “new normal” ahead as local leaders and health authorities innovate creative solutions aimed at reviving commerce and restarting the economy while also preserving health. This involves adapting transactions so goods and services can circulate while face-to-face contacts are minimized – at least for now. Then gradually, experts and officials say, increasing contacts will be allowed, starting with smaller groups and expanding from there, with the ban on large gatherings lifted last.

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Sarah Schu, marketing and development manager for Neighborhood Farmers Markets, posts a sign prior to the reopening of the University District Farmers Market on April 18. Market access is controlled to allow 60 shoppers at a time, to allow for social distancing.

“A major test”

For Saturday’s bedraggled shoppers and farmers alike, the market’s first day brings a stilted dance of social distancing – a far cry from the usual lively scene of fresh goods and hot food, street musicians, hugs, and camaraderie – but everyone agrees it is far better than no market at all. 

Indeed, the reopening is a trial run, contingent upon stringent new safety rules, and public health officials are monitoring compliance on-site. “This is a major test today,” says Sarah Schu, marketing and development manager for Neighborhood Farmers Markets, which runs the market and six others throughout Seattle. “If it goes well we are hoping we can open our two other year-round markets,” she says, wearing a mask and neon vest.

New rules limit the market to 30 vendors, or half the regular number, their tents spaced at least 10 feet apart. Bells ring at regular intervals to remind everyone to wash their hands. Prepared food is not allowed because it “encourages people to hang around and eat,” says Ms. Schu.

Shoppers line up at a single access point to ensure only 60 people are inside the two-block-long market at once. They can’t touch or pick out their own produce. They are encouraged to sign the 14-point shopper oath – pledging among other things to make a list in advance, send only one shopper per household, not bring pets, and “shop quickly and efficiently.”

“I won’t chat up my favorite farmer,” reads one line of the oath. “I will offer them a smile and wave.”

That’s one rule substitute teacher Nora Lih is tempted to bend – at least from a 6-foot distance. After appealing in emails to Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan to reopen the market, Ms. Lih is eager to visit with farmer Chris Petry, owner of Oh Yeah! Farms in Leavenworth, Washington. 

“I am just here to chat him up,” confides Ms. Lih. “This is one of my favorite customers,” responds Mr. Petry, who is selling sourdough bread made from his farm’s hard red wheat flour. “I am smiling,” he relates from behind his mask.

Since ancient times, markets have been essential places not only for trade but for human connections – something Ms. Lih and Mr. Petry have missed equally. Mr. Petry, a former mountain guide, says he’s been eager to return to the market after weeks secluded at his farm in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. Saturday feels “a little eerie,” he says, unlike the “vibrant, bright, awesome” event it is in normal times. Still, Ms. Lih cheers him up – as does the chance to sell some onions and other produce he advertises, tongue-in-cheek, as “straight outta compost.” 

Ann Scott Tyson/The Christian Science Monitor
Shoppers wearing masks line up 6 feet apart in the rain at the single entrance to the University District Farmers Market as it prepares to reopen April 18 in Seattle. A sign describes new “shopper rules” advising people not to touch anything or linger amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Back to business

Many local growers rely on the farmers markets for the majority of their sales. Some also cater to Seattle-area restaurants. The market’s closure and reduced or nonexistent restaurant sales have cost the farmers thousands of dollars. Some are getting by thanks to plans known as “community supported agriculture” or CSA, where customers buy a portion of the harvest in advance, but others risk going out of business, says Ms. Schu.

“Small farms are the fabric of our local food system, and if we do not allow them to continue to operate and thrive they will shut down, and access to fresh food, especially for urban places, will be severely limited,” she says. The market drew about 1,200 people on Saturday, she says, a third as many as the same time last year.

At a stall brimming with fresh asparagus, farmer Kurt Tonnemaker says the market opening is a good first step, but more space will be essential once cherries, peaches, and nectarines start ripening at his family’s orchards. “This is a trial and everyone’s new and we’re learning, but come July when all the farmers have a lot of their product in, it’s going to be difficult,” he says.

With her bag full of 4 pounds of the fresh green spears, Ms. Ferguson stops last at the stand of Jason Devela of Rockridge Orchards and Cidery to buy some rhubarb. Despite tough times, Mr. Devela, a Marine Corps veteran who turned to farming in part to help overcome PTSD, greets Ms. Ferguson with a grin instead of their usual hug. 

“I miss being able to talk to you!” he says. Both are determined to keep the market going. “If it came down to it, I would just set up on the side of the road and sell my products,” Mr. Devela says. “We’re resilient. We’ll get through it.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.