Adapted events in Clintonville, Worthington enable residents to get fresh ingredients and avoid grocery stores while also helping farmers and entrepreneurs stay in business

The Clintonville Farmers’ Market will kick off this Saturday as scheduled, but certainly not as usual. Combating the spread of COVID-19 has meant transforming into a fundamentally different event, with new procedures and a new location. And as with many institutions scrambling to adapt to the pandemic, the work behind the scenes has been significant.

“Normally March and April are very busy just prepping for opening day,” Market Manager Michelle White said, “but I feel like we’re launching an entirely new business model.”

The Clintonville Farmers’ Market typically takes place at the intersection of North High Street and Dunedin Road. The atmosphere is festive and casual: More than 50 vendors set up booths along the street. People mill about, many with children or pets in tow. Some post up to watch live music on Global Gallery’s patio. It’s happened this way nearly every Saturday from spring to autumn since 2003.

Instead, from 9 a.m. to noon this Saturday (April 25), about 30 sellers will participate in a drive-through market at Ohio History Connection at 800 E. 17th Ave. After preordering at the farmers’ market website this week, customers can pull up and have their prepackaged orders placed directly into their trunks. 

In the coronavirus era, this format has become common among farmers’ markets, which are allowed to continue operating under section 12 of Ohio’s shelter-in-place order, but typically don’t have the staffing or resources to ensure a socially distant browsing experience.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

“Yes, we are a food source, but we’re also still very much a special event,” said Nina Parini, executive director of the Worthington Partnership, which oversees the Worthington Farmers’ Market.

Because it runs year-round — outdoors in Uptown Worthington from May to October and indoors at the Shops at Worthington Place from November to April — Worthington’s market had to pivot to the drive-through model faster than most, a transition that expanded Market Manager Christine Hawks’ 20-hour-a-week position into a full-time job. Within weeks, the market was up and running at Worthington Community Center each Saturday morning, also by preorder.

“We’re expediting the line as quickly as we can,” Hawks said. “That, in some ways, goes against our very nature. Farmers’ markets have traditionally been this community gathering place, these social outlets for people.” 

But if these drive-throughs lack the charm of the usual farmers’ market experience, they’re a way to buy food without going to the grocery store, as well as a lifeline for local entrepreneurs whose livelihoods depend on these events. “Right now there’s a huge question mark hanging over all our heads regarding the future,” said Steve White, who calls farmers’ markets the backbone of his gourmet ice pops company J-Pops.

Wesley VanScoy said March’s initial wave of closures and cancellations was “catastrophic” for Ridgeway-based VanScoy Farms. VanScoy sells produce and beef through farm markets and to wholesale outlets, restaurants and college cafeterias. “In 18 hours, we lost every single sales outlet we had,” VanScoy said. His company has since regained its footing by partnering with poultry specialists Brown Bros. Farm and seafood merchants Kingdom Fish on an online storefront focused on pickup orders at Worthington’s drive-through market. 

Still, VanScoy worries about the long-term effects of a decimated economy. “We might be raising all this produce,” he said, “but if nobody’s got any money to purchase it with….” Such uncertainty is one reason VanScoy and other farmers have been promoting their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, subscription-style services in which customers pay farmers’ expenses up front in exchange for a weekly share of their crops. 

No such life raft is possible for vendors who heavily rely upon walk-up business. “We’re gonna have a harder time reaching new customers because half of our thing is based on sampling,” said Katie Varga, who runs gourmet pickle company The Crazy Cucumber with her father. In addition to farm markets, Varga’s company sets up shop at festivals, craft shows and other kinds of large-scale events, all of which have gone on hold for the time being. “Our year pretty much is a wash already,” she said. “We’re expecting to get hit pretty big.”

J-Pops also saw months of gigs evaporate. Steve White has hustled to find alternatives, like officially sanctioned “neighborhood pop-bys,” but has had to rethink many aspects of the business, including developing touchless payment options. “We used to do a ton of cash sales,” he said. “We have a pay system where we swipe a card, but you really can’t do that anymore either.”

Vendors might recover some peace of mind if organizers had any idea when traditional walk-up farmers’ markets might return, but the public health situation has been evolving so rapidly that projecting a return to normalcy feels impossible. “It’s such an unusual position to be in,” Clintonville’s Michelle White said. “Everything that the market represents and what we’ve been trying to build — bring your family, come hang out, enjoy some music — that’s not the message this year.”