November 5th, 2020 | Cambridge Chronicle: Farmers’ markets thrive as customers seek comfort of outdoor shopping

Farmers’ markets thrive as customers seek comfort of outdoor shopping

Maddy Wiener

Sorting through crates of heirloom tomatoes, David Wadleigh, manager at Kimball Fruit Farm, groups the soft ones to be sold for half price. This is one of the many quality control checks at the Kimball Fruit Farm stand in Harvard Square. It’s also one of the few things Wadleigh can control in what’s been an unpredictable time for farmers and farmers’ markets.

With so much unknown, Kimball Fruit Farm and other Massachusetts’ farms planned for a farmers’ market season that would look much different than years past. Without restaurants’ and wholesalers’ usual demand, many farms hoped to do most of their business at farmers’ markets this year.

Seeking social distancing, fresh local produce and the comfort of an outdoor shopping experience, the farmers’ markets in the greater Boston area have grown in popularity since they opened in late May.

Frank Busa, owner of Busa Farms in Lexington, said the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources warned him in late March to prepare for a large volume of people coming to the farmers’ markets.

“Usually we go into the wholesale markets where we would sell things to other restaurants,” said Busa, from his stand just outside The Charles Hotel. “This year we didn’t have the restaurants, but it was a good thing because we were selling mostly everything ourselves.”

According to the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, before the pandemic, 252 Massachusetts farms relied on restaurants for 20% to 50% of their sales.

While the farmers’ markets are open for business, the shopping experience includes more rules and regulations for both the vendors and the customers. Wadleigh feels these regulations have slowed down the business at his stands.

“At my market that I normally do in Union Square (Somerville), there are less people allowed in the entire parking lot than we normally have in line,” said Wadleigh. “There's only 45 allowed in the market at once.”

With these capacity restrictions and the strict no-touch policy for customers, Wadleigh said it takes two to three times as long to process each customer.

On top of the increased processing time, finding people to work at his stand has been harder.

“We try to find people who are available to work for about two months, and it's usually people who are in transition from one job to another,” said Wadleigh. “I think this year, the people who are in transition are finding a job that is more permanent and they’ll take that one instead.”

To bypass the long lines and time it takes to pick out customers’ produce, Kimball Fruit Farm introduced Harvest Boxes at the beginning of this season. For $30 or $50, customers can order a box of produce in advance and pick it up from the farmers’ market.

Although  put in place because of the pandemic, Kimball Fruit Farm might continue to offer Harvest Boxes in the future because of their popularity and efficiency.

Busa faces different challenges at his family-staffed market stand. Conscious of his health and age, hiring outside help to work the stands was not an option. Rotating between himself and a few family members, Busa has managed to keep the business efficient and busier than ever.

“I've been doing farmers’ markets for about 25 years and my family has been farming for 100 and we've learned to adapt to whatever really comes our way,” Busa said.

For Busa Farm and Kimball Fruit Farm, learning to be patient with customers has been a challenge. At the Harvard Square market, they allow customers to take their time pointing to the different fruits and vegetables they want.

“We have had lines going the whole five hours of the market,” said Busa. “When we close up sometimes we just have to sit for 10 or 15 minutes in the truck and not move to just get our bearings straight.”

Busa said his farm has kept up with the demand for fresh produce and continues to sell out at almost every market.

Unlike Busa, Wadleigh packs his truck for the market with the goal of bringing food back to the farm.

“It's kind of like if I sell out of something, I consider it to be me loading the truck incorrectly,” said Wadleigh.

The state Department of Public Health  announced in mid-October that indoor winter markets will be allowed to open. The Charles River Farmers' Market is usually open year round and moves inside in late November. A request for an update on whether the market will continue this winter has not yet been returned. The Cambridge Winter Farmers’ Market, located at the Cambridge Community Center, already announced it will not be opening this year. 

For older vendors like Busa, there is much to take into account.

“Personally there is a lot of anxiety,” said Busa. “Sometimes it's hard, but everybody's just trying to do their best.”

For more information about the Charles River Farmers' Market, visit

Maddy Wiener is a Boston University journalism student, writing as part of a collaboration between the Cambridge Chronicle and the BU News Service.

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