For many, the opening of outdoor farmers markets is the true harbinger of spring. But in the midst of a pandemic, spring has a different look.

Markets are faced with the challenge of operating while following social distancing directives. It’s not business as usual for the estimated 300 farmers markets in Illinois.

“There are many varieties of openings and models,” said Janie Maxwell, executive director of the Illinois Farmers Market Association.

They include preorders, as well as curbside and drive-thru options, all designed to comply with Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s shelter-in-place order that was recently extended through May. Farmers markets, like supermarkets, are among entities exempted from the harshest of restrictions.

The association has published a set of guidelines for vendors as well as customers.

“In the executive order farmers markets are essential. But sometimes they’re subject to localized permitting or health regulations,” Maxwell said. “So we wanted to put together these guidelines so we can do this and do it safely.”

Stef Funk, who manages the farmers market of Plant Chicago, said the community and educational aspects of markets will at least temporarily be affected.

“It’s going to look very different than it has in the past,” Funk said. “... Sampling and cooking demos were the first thing to go. There is a lot of community value in that. It will be hard to lose those educational components of a farmers market.”

The market also will not offer craft goods such as soaps and skin-care products.

IFMA has developed guidelines for operating what the organization calls an “in-and-out market” in 2020.

“We’re trying to transform that lovely farmers market event atmosphere that we all love toward more of a ‘this is a place where you buy food and essential products,’” Maxwell said. “It’s a shopping experience rather than an event.”

The Carbondale Farmers Market has become a drive-thru shopping experience. Vendors are kept 10 feet apart and shoppers roll down car windows to tell them what they want to purchase.

“We encourage a lot of signage,” said Ann Stahlheber, who manages the market in Jackson County. “The shoppers are not allowed to get out. Vendors wear masks and we encourage all the customers to wear masks. One person handles the money and another person handles the product.”

Shoppers are encouraged to have purchases placed in their trunks to further avoid handling. Like the Chicago markets, prepared foods and craft items are not being offered.

Funk said getting used to the new role of the farmers market will be a challenge.

“I spend so much time trying to be different from a grocery store. But in the middle of a pandemic, our job is to provide food,” she said. “If that makes it more like a streamlined grocery store, that’s what we’ll have to do.”

Maxwell also acknowledges the situation isn’t ideal.

“Farmers markets are wonderful community gathering places, and that’s one thing we appreciate about them,” she said. “But one of our goals this year is to make sure our producers have a way to sell their products. They have depended on this direct-to-consumer sales model.”

IFMA estimates farmers markets represent the sole sales outlet for 25% of vendors.

“Farmers markets are responsible for a significant amount of revenue to communities,” Maxwell said. “Many producers said (closing them) would be devastating to their business.”

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.