Photo by Sara Coffin

UPDATE: The original opening date of April 11 has been pushed back to April 25.

ORIGINAL STORY: With our farmers and their goods deemed “essential” during this month of social distancing, the Sanford Farmers Market is eyeing a return to downtown on April 25.

Market manager Josh Hodge said the market is more important than ever as shoppers locally and nationally are finding bare shelves and communities are becoming more food insecure in these tough economic times.

“The farmers markets around the country are likely going to be the one of the only ways for people to purchase fresh, locally grown produce at a time when grocery stores may be lean, especially for WIC users, which we accept,” Hodge said. “It’s a two-way street as well, because the vendors at the market are also experiencing these times and relying on events like this to get their products out and support themselves.”

Hodge said the COVID-19 epidemic will certainly change the way the local market runs. Social distancing will be mandated — only one person in the vendors booth at a time and one customer at a booth at a time. Food displays will be minimal to keep contact down, vendors will wear gloves and will have hand sanitizer available, and table cloths will not be allowed at the booths.

“We are still exploring what this will look like when we reopen and also seeing what other markets have done that have made the experience safer,” Hodge said. “We are in a transition period with the market and looking to make this a fixture of the Sanford/Lee county area. We know people have options on a Saturday, and other markets they can visit may be a bit more robust, but I believe we can get our market to that point where this becomes a huge draw for the community.”

The farmers market returns to downtown Sanford, as last year’s location — the Ruby McSwain Extension Education and Agriculture Center — is closed until further notice. The market will operate in the parking lot of the Buggy Building, with the hopes that could be a long-term switch.

“We are so excited about this and the hope it may bring our community to have an open-air market to purchase fresh, local produce during this time,” said Kelli Laudate, director of Downtown Sanford Inc.

Joni Martin, owner of Progressive Contracting Company Inc. and the Buggy Building property, echoed Laudate’s enthusiasm for the market’s downtown return.

“It’s such a draw for our farmers, and, in turn, it gets people downtown to go to restaurants (to pick up food) and see what we have to offer,” Martin said. “We realize these are difficult times, but it will provide another resource in the meantime and an opportunity to grow our market in the future.”