Typically, spring means farmers are getting back in the field and farmers markets are beginning to open. But this is not a typical year, with public health experts taking drastic measures to limit public interaction and food providers caught in a time of heavy demand coupled with widespread uncertainty.
Earlier this week, the Colorado governor's office and the Colorado Department of Agriculture sent out a public notice to clarify that farmer markets are considered critical infrastructure, which means they are allowed to continue operating in the midst of extreme social distancing measures and non-essential work closures.
"Now that we have clear guidance from the state that the markets are cleared to operate, we will be hosting a call with our market managers to share and discuss challenges and problems and ideas and figure out solutions," said Rosalind May, executive director of the Colorado Farmers Market Association.
The directive gives individual markets flexibility to make their own decisions about whether to open, but requires they follow all public health guidelines and work closely with local health officials, she said.
"I think you'll see the response vary a lot between the different markets," she added.
Approaches differ in neighboring states as well. In Kansas, several indoor winter markets decided to remain closed at least until the summer season, while several Oklahoma markets remained open after the agriculture department sent out a directive emphasizing "the importance of providing the public with safe, healthy food everyday, but especially in this time of uncertainty."
At the same time, many individual markets around the region were changing up their formats. One farmers market in Wichita moved all ordering on-line and hired otherwise unemployed food service workers to make deliveries throughout the city, with a separate drive-up and pick-up option available.
In one Oklahoma community, a drive-through farmers market opened, requiring that all purchases be made in advance, a format that is helpful to farmers as well as shoppers.
Some restaurants have even switched over to operating as markets instead.
"There's a lot of creative ideas out there," May said. "I heard about one restaurant willing to process any extra food farmers can't sell. By being willing to process and store it, that would really help."
With the crisis hitting at the beginning of the growing season, farmers are facing tough planting decisions, with heightened uncertainty surrounding disrupted markets and shifts in food consumption patterns and demand.
"I think it's a really valid concern," May said. "A lot of institutional markets are closed, and there's been some uncertainty surrounding the farmers markets, but the reality is people will need food and, in some ways, the need for healthy food is greater than ever."
While there are no guarantees of how it will all play out, she hopes farmers will consider operating at or near full production.
Meanwhile, advocacy groups like the Farmers Market Coalition were working hard this week to make sure small market growers were included in the federal government relief package. Legislators spent the early part of the week hammering out a $2 trillion deal that would cover everything from airline bailouts to unemployment assistance for gig economy workers.
In the midst of the negotiations, a new hashtag started trending on twitter: #TooSmallTooFail, a reference to small local and family businesses deserving as much support as big business.
Colorado State University food and ag economists Dawn Thilmany and Becca Jablonski helped author a research paper for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition showing that small farms and businesses would actually be hit harder by the outbreak than larger corporate farms and food companies that sell into national and international markets.
Some of the goals of small farm advocates included insuring that small and medium-sized farmers would be integrated into all emergency payment, workforce and other small business provisions; encouraging more federal purchases of fresh, minimally processed foods to use for public assistance programs; expanding administrative flexibility for federal grant and loan programs; and providing federal funding to help farmers markets move more of their services online.
On Wednesday, the Senate was still working out the details of the new relief measure, which included direct payments for most Americans along with $367 billion in aid relief for small businesses. The relief package has the president's support but would still need approval from the House.
As to whether farmers markets will look different in the future as the result of all the changes going on now, May believes that is certainly a possibility.
"I think in-person markets will still be incredibly important, and maybe even more important, but solutions we are finding now will have an influence on how markets operate in the future," she said. "I think we'll see more on-line ordering, which offers advantages for producers as well as consumers."
"I don't think this means farmers markets will go to only on-line sales," she added. "But maybe a merging of that with the traditional farmers market, I think we could certainly see that evolving. It's evolving now."
One thing is clear: consumers are more aware of the importance of having a healthy and secure food supply than they have been in a very long time.
"This crisis is showing us the critical importance of the food system," May said. "The message to get out to people in such a challenging time for everyone is that we need our farmers markets, and our farmers and ranchers, and they need our support, and to remember that there are so many different ways to purchase from them."