Local markets and garden centers prepare to open amid virus concerns

Businesses across the state are worried about the impact of COVID-19, including ones considered “essential” — like farmers’ markets and garden centers. 

Last week Gov. Ned Lamont released a list of essential businesses that could stay open while all others are forced to close, operate remotely, or in the case of restaurants, offer only takeout and pickup. 

Grocery stores are considered essential, as well as farmers’ markets.

“Farm stores and farmers’ markets offer consumers a retail option that is essential to keeping fresh, local food accessible,” said state Department of Agriculture Commissioner Bryan P. Hurlburt.

Farmer Joe DeFrancesco said he delayed the opening of his Wallingford market by a few weeks to see what coronavirus-related regulations might emerge. He wanted to avoid opening and then being forced to quickly shut down. 

His team at Farmer Joe’s Gardens is working on a menu of offerings on the website so people can call in orders for pick-up, including curbside.

“I want everyone to have food, I want everyone to have healthy food and local food,” he said.

The market will have flowers and vegetables to plant, plus produce and jarred vegetables. It also sells other grocery items like milk, eggs, cheese, yogurt, granola, bread, pies and ground beef. Everything is Connecticut-made.

DeFrancesco said he’s not too worried about how his farm stand will do when it opens April 1. 

However, he’s already seen an impact on the wholesale side of his business. 

“Sales are down 50 percent on Easter plants and spring flowers that go out to grocery stores, garden centers and stuff like that,” DeFrancesco said. 

The plants were selling well up until the virus started in the state. Now, it seems all businesses are in limbo, he said. 

This time of year, DeFrancesco is busy preparing for opening and planting crops to be harvested later. He’s worried about the coronavirus, but it’s not his only concern. 

“...I’m as busy as ever,” he said. 

Before Winterberry Gardens’ retail center opens, Chief Financial Office Bryan Stolz said the team is working on creating an online inventory so customers can order over the phone. 

The garden center is planning to have curbside pickup and delivery.

“We are here, we’re open and we are doing everything in our power to make sure that their interactions with us are low risk,” Stolz said. 

Stolz said the Southington business is working to adapt. Seventy-five percent of the office staff is working from home and some in-person shifts have been staggered. Safety practices have been increased. 

At Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, the Apple Barrel grocery store is making adjustments in sanitation practices, staff and even stock. 

In an effort to give people a one-stop-shop for all their grocery needs, owner John Lyman said they’ve added meat and are working to get paper products.

“We’re trying to provide all the products people need,” Lyman said. “The core products that fall in line with eating healthy and staying healthy to hopefully avoid getting the virus.” 

Inside, the deli is making more to-go meals. 

Many parts of the business are still able to operate under the governor’s mandate. Lyman has workers in the orchards getting ready for an early season, and will have reduced staff keeping the golf courses running, making pies and operating the market.

However, like every business, expenses are being tightened and some planned investments may be postponed. 

“We are concerned, as every business is right now, in terms of how long this can go on,” Lyman said. “It is having an impact on our topline, despite the fact we’re open.”

Lyman does not expect pick-you-own, which starts in June, to be affected. However, his team has begun thinking of possible ways to change how customers enter the fields to limit crowding.

Roger’s Orchards in Southington decided to close both retail stores early on, then a few days later reopened for pickup only. 

Customers can call in an order and then pick it up curbside at the Shuttle Meadow location, 336 Longbottom Road.

Sales Room Manager Victoria Germano said so far it’s going well. The store offers nine varieties of apples, cider, cider donuts, local eggs, milk, bread and limited produce. 

The frozen chicken pot pies and bread from Albert’s Bakery have been popular, she said. 

The staff has been regularly sanitizing the sales room, doing extra handwashing and using hand sanitizer.

Besides fresh, local food, these businesses can offer patrons a “breather,” or just a chance to be outside and in some cases watch farm animals.

Lyman is hopeful that the virus outbreak emc will strengthen local communities. Instead of traveling far from home for entertainment, they may rely more on what’s offered locally. 

“We might find people this summer staying closer to home and doing things around more locally,” Lyman said. 

Stolz hopes the situation may inspire more people to start a garden. And he welcomes anyone to come by the store in Southington just to walk around. 

“It is 100 percent outdoors so it's a nice safe place for people,” he said. 

bwright@record-journal.com203-317-2316Twitter: @baileyfaywright


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