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A shopper and vendor wear protective masks while conducting business. The Athens Farmers Market opened for vendors and customers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but took precautions to keep all parties as safe as possible on May 16, 2020, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/ Kathryn Skeean, kskeean@randb.com)

Laura Pallas and her husband, Cameron Phillips, run Buffalo Creek Berry Farm about 40 minutes from Athens. When COVID-19 disrupted life in the spring, the couple made changes that allowed the farm to safely generate income, said Pallas, who earned a doctoral degree in food science from the University of Georgia.

“When you’re working on the land, it’s still producing, regardless of what is happening in the rest of the world,” Pallas said.

In the past, the farm had specific days when families could drop in and pick berries, Pallas said. Once the pandemic hit, the couple changed to an appointment-only program, and they were encouraged to get their online store “up and going.”

“That was actually a positive thing,” she said. “It let us meet and greet people more personally.”

Because of a growing desire for local food, this summer, the farm has not been able to meet the demand for chemical-free and pesticide-free food, Pallas said. William Breedlove, who manages The Pastures of Rose Creek and raises grass-fed beef, echoed this sentiment.

Despite the interruptions to the farm’s regular distribution to restaurants, sales have been substantial enough to support a healthy business.

“Hopefully, this increased demand for local food options outlasts COVID-19,” Breedlove said.

Steve and Mandy O’Shea, who grow flowers at 3 Porch Farm have also adapted to the pandemic. 

“COVID-19 completely flipped our business on its head, with a strong period of panic,” Steve O’Shea said. “We stopped doing markets altogether and transitioned very quickly to a shipping model.”

Because of the pandemic, the couple has reduced flower production from approximately 95% to 70% and shifted to more vegetables, in an attempt to aid in food security for the community, Mandy O’Shea said. In addition, they now raise medicinal crops, like turmeric and ginger.

However, not all of the farm’s products can be shipped, Steve O’Shea said. They are trying to be flexible going forward, keeping income coming in while keeping the farm’s five employees safe.

Athens area farmers markets have also been nimble in adapting to the pandemic.

Athens Locally Grown entered March 2020 with an advantage. In the early 2000’s, market manager Eric Wagoner wrote software that enabled the market to operate as an online-only market, with customer pickup.

Because of the online ordering system, “it was easier for us to adapt than for more traditional markets,” Wagoner said. The first priority was changing order pickup to be safe, with social distancing, protective gear and the ability to wash hands.

While other farmers markets scrambled to adapt, Athens Locally Grown was open, and within two weeks its “sales climbed 10 times normal,” Wagoner said. 

But the West Broad Farmers Market postponed this year’s physical opening, market manager Ellie Adams said. Instead, West Broad licensed the software which Wagoner had developed for Athens Locally Grown and transitioned to online-only operations, Adams said. This migration to an online-only business has provided an extra benefit:

“It has grown our customer reach, which has been wonderful for our vendors,” Adams said.

The market will continue using this software for an online option, even after it physically reopens to the public, Adams said. Pallas and Cameron, who have been vendors at the West Broad Farmers Market since 2019, plan to take advantage of this.

“The online-order system is simple,” Pallas said. “Uploading and updating items is easy.”

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