OSCODA – Although the threat of COVID-19 is in full swing, volunteers and vendors at the Northeast Michigan Regional Farm Market (NMRFM) are not letting the pandemic ruin their season.

The NMRFM 21st season is set to begin at Gateway Park in Tawas City on Saturday, May 9, and at Shoreline Park in AuSable/Oscoda on Wednesday, May 13. Both markets will run from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; however the circumstances and environment are expected to change from years prior. 

With the stay-at-home order still in place from Governor Gretchen Whitmer, NMRFM Chair Stephanie Wentworth said its very important to have precautions put it place to follow the six foot social distancing rules among other things.

“We’re monitoring the COVID-19 as closely as possible and we are going to be following the guidelines that exist on the day we open, so its a little bit difficult to say exactly what we’re going to be doing. We do have specific things. We’re going to be having to keep people apart, the six foot separation. We’re going to be wearing masks,” said Wentworth. We’re outdoors, so we don’t have the same guidelines that a grocery store has, but we’re going to follow grocery store rules.”

Wentworth said in following grocery store rules, customers will be asked to stay back from one another and the products. When customers purchase a product the vendor will have one person who hands them the product and one person who collects the money. Additionally there will be no handling of products or sampling allowed. 

“Our customers tend to historically come in, buy the stuff and leave and we’re definitely encouraging that to continue in light of the virus situation,” said Wentworth.

In addition to following social distancing rules, vendors will also be placed six feet apart filling a larger amount of space than usual. With this in mind, specifically in Tawas City, not all vendors will be able to fit under the pavilion, so some may need to have canopies of their own. Further, in order to enter the market, patrons must be wearing a mask at all times and population of the market will be monitored if necessary. 

“We’re going to be monitoring the entrances and we will have one person on duty keeping track of that very thing. If all of a sudden we have too many people we’ll put a rope across and say, ‘Wait a minute’. Right now we don’t know quite what to expect, but we do know we cannot have too many people together at one time,” said Wentworth. 

As far as vendors go, Wentworth said they are excited to be back this season. 

“All our regulars seem to be coming back and that’s certainly another advantage of having this be our 21st season. We have veterans. They are very responsible. They are small business people and this is a important part of their lives and that translates into being a good thing for the customers and the community,” said Wentworth. 

According to Wentworth the rules state that the market can sell food for human consumption, dog food and treats and hygiene products.

“I think actually will be quite popular because there’s shortages of some of this stuff at the grocery store and the grocery stores are challenged right now and they’ll be product there that people haven’t seen for awhile and I think that probably will mean we’ll have a lot of customers,” said Wentworth. 

For those experiencing a lower income or no income currently, Wentworth said there are programs in place to help feed that population and that the programs used year after year have received small changes due to the pandemic. The two programs are Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)  bridge cards and Double Up With Food Bucks (DUFB).

“There’s been an increase in the funding for that program and therefore we’re anticipating an increase in customers. The other one is Double Up Food Bucks and again they have temporarily lifted the earnings maximum for the 2020 match. Double Up Food Bucks used to be $20 and you could take $20 from your bridge card and match it with $20 from Double Up. Now they have lifted that earning maximum to whatever you have on your bridge card,” said Wentworth.

Essentially with the increases in funding and the earning maximum lifted, lower income homes will have more money to purchase more food than they are normally able to. According to Wentworth, a new program rolled out this year called the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program to help provide families extra financial help with buying groceries. 

“It will be available at least through June. As I understand it, it will be extended if necessary, but right now it will be available through June,” said Wentworth. 

Additionally, as in years past, there will be Master Gardner’s and a Market Master at both markets to assist with gardening questions. 

“They’ve been extremely extremely helpful to the markets,” said Wentworth.

Additionally, Wentworth said her goals for the market this year with the current circumstances. 

“Food has become serious, no longer social. It’s serious and what we’re trying to do with this farm market is essentially have an outdoor grocery store made available and along with it all these different benefits and access to the fresh products that people love,” said Wentworth.

Further, in order to combat the cost of having to hire more staff to the market this year, Wentworth said the board is applying for the Iosco County Community Foundation Community Improvement Grant. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic had a monumental impact on food distribution and availability. This year our two markets will be organized in a dramatically different way to meet social distancing requirements. In addition to low income support programs that we offer are dramatically enhanced because of the pandemic. Funds are needed for additional employees signs and control barriers to employ additional staff to deal with the requirements of social distancing and increase customers resulting from a support program,” stated Wentworth in the application. 

Wentworth said it would have been much easier to skip this year with the circumstances, but the board collectively agreed to go ahead with the market regardless of the pandemic. 

“The easy thing would be to say, ‘Let’s take a year off’ and particularly as volunteers and that was one thing that as a group we all had to talk about because it takes all of us to pull this together. Once the decision was made to proceed then it was, ‘Okay then how are we going to do it?’ and then a lot of time trying to figure out just what the rules were,” said Wentworth.

The NMRFM is set to run from May-October at Gateway Park in Tawas City on Saturdays and Shoreline Park in AuSable/Oscoda on Wednesdays. For more information contact Wentworth at 362-3193.