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A farmers market with white awnings, and a patron in the foreground wears a mask.
At the Union Square Greenmarket, the crowds were sparser than usual for a Saturday.

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NYC’s Farmers Market Can Be a Calming Oasis of Socially Distanced Grocery Shopping

Eater’s senior critic Robert Sietsema makes his usual visit to the city’s farmers markets and finds them much changed, though with faster moving lines than nearby Whole Foods

Nearly every Saturday I visit two Greenmarkets — the official name for the network of farmers markets operated in the five boroughs by nonprofit GrowNYC. The small one at Abingdon Square is near my apartment, but I also visit the mother of all markets at Union Square. It was the first, opened in 1976 and probably the most famous in the country, often cited as inspiring the farm-to-table movement among restaurants.

But what novel coronavirus-incited changes I found this past Saturday! At Abingdon Square in the West Village, there were seven stalls instead of the usual 10 or so, along with the Greenmarket kiosk and bins for recycling household waste and clothing. One stand selling baked goods was fluttering with yellow tape of the kind used at crime scenes, warning customers to keep their distance. Two booths had hastily arranged Plexiglas panels between the offerings and the consumers, acting not only as sneeze guards, but to keep patrons from reaching over and touching the produce. Touching the merchandise is something most consumers love to do.

A line of six or so patrons in line with six feet between them.
Patrons of Abingdon Square Greenmarket practice social distancing.
Four apples in a paper sack.
Braeburn apples are still available.

At Prospect Hill Orchards (Milton, NY), where I bought four lovely Braeburn apples, the woman behind the table of apple bins acted as my surrogate feeler. She picked up each apple in turn and examined it for flaws, rejecting several and ostentatiously setting them down before finalizing my selection and putting them in a paper bag. I was sorely tempted by the bags of apple cider doughnuts, but decided I’d already eaten too many pastries since the outbreak with the justification that they were comfort food.

Plastic barriers lined the stand for Muddy Farm (Stone Ridge, NY), which sells the best eggs in town with the yellowest yolks, looking like the result of cannily feeding the chickens marigolds. Behind the plastic, mushrooms had been brown-bagged in $5 and $10 portions. When I reached to grab one, a masked and gloved woman said that only she could touch the bags. She ceremoniously scooped up the sack I pointed to and passed it over to the farmer, who told me he could only accept cards and not cash, and then thrust a card reader that was tethered to his cell phone toward me.

The most popular stand was PE & DD Seafood, out of Riverhead, Long Island. And a line stretched down the block, with the customers self-consciously standing six feet apart. The stand’s gorgeous display of freshly cut filets and crustaceans on ice normally runs to 20 choices, listed on a chalkboard at the rear of the tent. Now, there were only five choices, including the biggest scallops I’d ever seen. It was the result, I suspect, of the fishers being unable to sell the highest quality scallops to luxury restaurants. Here was one advantage of shopping at the farmers market during the current era.

A sign lists rules for shopping at the greenmarket, including maintaining safe distances apart.
Union Square Greenmarket warning sign

I then took an almost empty bus to the Union Square Greenmarket. As I walked past the statue of Gandhi overshadowed by a pink magnolia tree in full bloom, I couldn’t help but notice that a long line extended down the block from the Whole Foods, and it wasn’t moving. By contrast, the market had an estimated one-tenth the customers it normally attracts on a sunny Saturday in the early afternoon.

Here, the stalls had initiated similar precautions, extending to Plexiglas barriers, pre-packaged products, and masks and gloves on the part of most salespeople. Cautious patrons were keeping their distance from one another.

It too had fewer stands than usual, about one-third less. Represented among the 40 or so establishments were bakeries; vineyards; sellers of hydroponic lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes; mushroom growers; apple orchards with firm apples picked last autumn; purveyors of dairy and eggs; an ostrich farm with bones for your dog; a stall selling tomato sauce, and another that had the fresh pasta to go with it.

And there were several places selling fruit tree branches about to break into blossom, cut greenhouse flowers, and “sets” of flowering plants and herbs that can be planted directly in one’s garden or window box. I stopped at one place that was selling primrose plants at two for $5, and bought four. The attendant gave me a chocolate mint plant for free. (Yes, chocolate mint does smell and taste like Junior Mints.)

A man in a motorized wheelchair contemplates the plastic  bags of spinach.
Market vendors wear masks and produce is pre-bagged.
A vast array of flowers and houseplants on the ground in front of a truck.
Colorful plants available for yard, community garden, or window box

Recognizing that I might be eating a lot of pancakes, I bought a quart of thick buttermilk from Hawthorne Valley Farms in Ghent, NY. I avoided the wonderful potato chips made from several heirloom varieties by Mountain Sweet Berry Farm, a booth that introduced Tristar Strawberries to the market decades ago. And I made a stop at Shushan Valley Hydro Farm (Salem, NY), a former dairy farm that converted to a hydroponic farm a few years ago. Three heirloom tomato varieties were available, in shades of purple, red, and yellow. I bought a few of each, by number rather than weight. The woman behind the counter offered to ship me boxes of tomatoes if I didn’t feel like stopping by the market. Then I tarried at Two Guys From Woodbridge (Hamden, CT) and scored an assortment of leaf lettuces with roots intact, which makes for longer storage, if necessary. Now I had a salad!

As I was exiting the market, the lines at both Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods had only lengthened. The standers were wearing masks and fidgeting, and they certainly weren’t standing six feet apart.

Today, I received a letter from the GrowNYC, the parent of the Greenmarkets, informing me that the markets would be closed Monday and Tuesday to regularize and extend the safety precautions, since they had been makeshift and voluntary before. Safety, the letter said, was the market’s “number-one concern.”

I wondered how many people were still inside the grocery stores, bumping into each other as they distractedly shopped. At least my farmers market experience had been a wholly enjoyable one.

The quote on the side of the tent says, “All sorrows are less with bread.”
A quote from Cervantes welcomes you to the Greenmarket.

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