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Photo of Easton Farmers Market Vendor on Opening Day 2020 set up at Scott park, Easton PA
Home » News » After 268 Years, America’s Oldest, Continuously Operating Open-air Farmers’ Market Doesn’t Stop for COVID19

After 268 Years, America’s Oldest, Continuously Operating Open-air Farmers’ Market Doesn’t Stop for COVID19

“Since it was established in 1752, our market has survived world wars, the Civil War and the 1918 pandemic,” said Easton Market District Director Megan McBride. “If the market’s history and staying power have taught us anything, it’s tenacity. No matter what, there will be an Easton Farmers’ Market. Yes, it’s going to be different this year, but there will be a market.”

EASTON, PA – The 1918 pandemic couldn’t shut it down. Nor did either of the world wars. Easton Farmers’ Market (EFM) — America’s oldest, continuously-operating open-air market — has been chugging along since before the Revolutionary War. Long before America was even a thing. So when the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in the plans for the 2020 season, organizers knew they had to find a way to keep the market going for its 268th year.

“Since it was established in 1752, our market has survived world wars, the Civil War and the 1918 pandemic,” said Easton Market District Director Megan McBride. “If the market’s history and staying power have taught us anything, it’s tenacity. No matter what, there will be an Easton Farmers’ Market. Yes, it’s going to be different this year, but there will be a market.”

Postcard from 1909 showing “The Market” in the Circle

Easton’s official town crier announced the market, presented by Capital BlueCross, would open on schedule on Saturday, May 2, in a new location. The market will continue operating Saturdays through November.

“Farmers markets are vital and essential,” McBride said. “We feel a responsibility to feed our community, and to support our local farmers — many of whom have seen their wholesale and restaurant orders dry up. For us, giving up was not an option.”

A rallying cry

To make it work, McBride said it took a whole lot of creative thinking. The market typically sees 4,000 shoppers that fill the center of town every Saturday. But to leave enough room for socially distant shopping for customers and 25 vendors, organizers had to move the entire market from its home in Centre Square, Easton, to neighboring Scott Park. Vendors needed to be spaced 10-20 feet apart, and customers needed six feet in between them. An outdoor, foot-pedal sink and sanitizer stations had to be brought in. Easton Ambassadors — the city’s clean and safe team run by the same nonprofit Greater Easton Development Partnership that runs EFM — would be needed to help customers navigate the new layout and control the number of shoppers in the market at a given time.

But the biggest hurdle would require help from the whole city. Scott Park is a narrow stretch of grass sandwiched between the Delaware River that divides Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and a busy two-lane road. To make the market work, they’d need to shut down the road to allow vendors to line both sides of the street, and customers to move from one spray-painted ground circle to the next circle placed six feet away.

McBride said she knew shutting down a major thoroughfare was a big ask, but Mayor Sal Panto Jr. made it happen.

“Closing down a major roadway is easy for the farmers market,” Mayor Panto said. “Not only has it been the lifeblood of many farmers since its founding in 1752, it is still an important component of life in this region. Fresh produce, vegetables and people wanting to eat healthy, especially in these trying times, makes a great recipe for success.”

“Farmers markets are vital and essential,” McBride said. “We feel a responsibility to feed our community, and to support our local farmers — many of whom have seen their wholesale and restaurant orders dry up. For us, giving up was not an option.”

Easton’s riverside location, situated only 1.5 hours from Philly and New York City, made it a crucial port in early days. It also rose to prominence as one of the three places where the Declaration of Independence was first publicly read aloud on July 8, 1776.

Pivoting to new business models

McBride and her team worked with the National Farmers Market Coalition, Penn State Extension, Buy Fresh Buy Local Greater Lehigh Valley, and the Pennsylvania Dept. of Agriculture to establish safety standards for the producer-only market. Staff and vendors would wear gloves and masks, and customers are required to wear masks as well. The first hour (9-10 a.m.) is reserved for at-risk individuals and shoppers aged 65+.

Farmers rallied, with some creating online stores so customers can pre-order and pay before picking up local produce and fresh bread. Farmers also pivoted their business models to offer grab n’ go veggie bags, butcher boxes and more. They moved to accept new forms of payment, including Venmo, PayPal, and taking personal checks (in addition to cash and credit).

The result paid off, with lines of shoppers patiently waiting last Saturday to meet their farmers and get fresh, local produce.

Shopping at the market offers customers a chance to cut down their supply chain by purchasing pasture-raised meat and eggs, dairy items, local produce, honey and more directly from the farmers/producers. The outdoor market also allows customers to shop in an open-air setting with fewer points of contact.

McBride notes that the market also fills a need for customers who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Thanks to a USDA grant through Buy Fresh Buy Local of the Greater Lehigh Valley (BFBLGLV), the market offers LV Fresh Food Bucks with EBT purchases matched by BFBLGLV, up to $10 per day. Those enrolled in the Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP) for qualified seniors, and those in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in New Jersey and Pennsylvania will be able to use their vouchers at produce vendors who participate in their state’s programs.

“Call us determined, stubborn or scrappy — but there was no way we were going to let this be the year without an Easton Farmers’ Market,” McBride said. “Besides we’ve got a big birthday celebration we’re planning for July — this year we’ve got 268 candles we’re going to have to squeeze on one really big cake.”

Sponsors for the 2020 EFM season include: Capital BlueCross, Easton Hospital, Nurture Nature Foundation, Martin Guitar, Easton Coach Co. and The Easton Home.

Fresh Tomatoes

ABOUT: Easton Farmers’ Market (EFM) is a program of the Greater Easton Development Partnership (GEDP). EFM is America’s longest continuously-running open-air market. It is a producer-only market that features fresh, local produce – the vast majority of which is naturally/organically grown. Customers will also find antibiotic and hormone-free, pasture-raised meats, fresh baked goods, and ready-to-eat items. GEDP is a volunteer-driven, nonprofit organization focused on Easton’s economic well-being, historical integrity, vibrant culture, and hospitality. It is comprised of Easton Farmers’ Market, Easton Main Street Initiative, Easton Public Market, PA Bacon Fest and the Easton Ambassadors. For more information, visit eastonpartnership.org

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Laini Abraham

Laini Abraham

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