The Portland Farmers’ Market in Deering Oaks Park opened for the season Saturday, April 25, under strict hygiene rules. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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For farmers and fans of fresh, locally grown produce and food, last Saturday marked the return of something familiar in Portland: the Deering Oaks Park farmers’ market.

But it didn’t happen without changes required by the coronavirus pandemic.

Although COVID-19 concerns have forced many businesses to close, city officials decided the farmers’ market serves an essential purpose and will operate twice weekly, on Saturdays and Wednesdays.

A vendor gathers produce for a customer at the Portland Farmers’ Market in Deering Oaks Park on Saturday, April 25, when the market opened for the season. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

Ethan Hipple, deputy director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Facilities Department, said while the city is concerned about overall public safety, the market is viewed as a service similar to a grocery store.

“For some people, that’s their main food source, and an option where people can get their locally grown food,” Hipple said.

And like the grocery stores, Hipple said the farmers’ market has made some noticeable changes to ensure safety for patrons.

Vendors are at least 6 feet apart from each other, and foot traffic is one way, keeping customers in a loop rather than allowing them to move back and forth. Patrons are also being asked to keep the appropriate 6-foot distance from each other, Hipple said.

Farmers are also going to be the only ones touching the food. Hipple said they will bag items for customers, and some farm stands are letting customers order and pay in advance. He said not every farm stand offers this service, and the best way to find out is to contact the farmers directly.

“We see it as an essential service,” Hipple said. “They serve low-income residents as well, and we didn’t want to see that stop. And in some ways, an outdoor setting might be safer than an indoor setting if we do it safely.”

He said the city is also encouraging customers to pay with debit and credit cards instead of cash.  

Carolyn Snell, chairwoman of the Portland Farmers’ Market Association, agreed that the market is an essential service.

Customers line up 6 feet apart at the Portland Farmers’ Market in Deering Oaks Park on Saturday, April 25. (Portland Phoenix/ Jim Neuger)

“We want residents of Portland to know that if they need food and plants we farmers are here for you, so come on out,” Snell said via email. “If you don’t need any food or plants this week, please stay home and we’ll see you when you do.”

According to the PFMA, an information booth at the market will be processing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Traditionally, the market has operated Saturdays at Deering Oaks from 7 a.m.-1 p.m., and Wednesdays at the same time in Monument Square.

But the city and farmers agreed to shift away from Monument Square, which may not allow enough space for vendors and patrons to properly distance themselves from each other. Also, the first hour is reserved for customers over the age of 60 or who are immunocompromised.

“With so many things in society changing or closing or being postponed, hopefully this is one little ray of hope for people that things can return to normal,” Hipple said.

Signs of the times at the Portland Farmers’ Market in Deering Oaks Park. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

The layout of the market in Deering Oaks is also different, with less parking for customers since areas that had been used for customer parking are now allocated to vendors. Traditionally, musicians and artists have been part of the market environment. But for now, to discourage people from creating a crowd, Hipple said those elements won’t be present.

“Hopefully that can come back soon,” he said.

Snell said the market will be “more of an essential errand, meant to be done efficiently,” instead of a place for neighbors to gather.

Hipple said city staff will be at the markets to ensure things run safely and smoothly.

“We will be evaluating as we go,” he said, “but we are really committed to making it happen.”

A map lists the vendors participating in the Saturday Portland Farmers’ Market, and instructions for one-way foot traffic around the park. (Courtesy PFMA)