Coralville continues to host annual farmers market in-person, Iowa City hosts market virtually

The City of Coralville made the decision to move its annual farmers market back to an in-person structure, with the City of Iowa City keeping its market virtual because of COVID-19.


Jeff Sigmund

Purchasing fresh produce at the Coralville Farmers Market 201 E. 9th St..As seen on Monday, Sept 14, 2020.

Claire Benson, News Reporter

Iowa City and Coralville will continue to host their annual farmers markets from May to October. While Iowa City has been operating theirs exclusively online, Coralville has transitioned from an online version back into an in-person market.

Manager of Commercial Property at the Watts Group Tony Rubino, who was recently named Coralville Farmers’ Market manager, said he spoke with City of Coralville leaders about the market while it was in a hybrid model, where customers had to place orders ahead of time to pick-up. Rubino said it was not as successful as the market organizers had originally hoped it to be.

“They had several vendors that just weren’t able to accommodate that, and the customer participation was extremely low, so [the Parks and Recreation Department] discontinued that,” Rubino said.

After these struggles earlier in the summer, the City of Coralville’s Parks and Recreation Department made the decision to also discontinue providing resources for the farmers market, so the Watts Group took over managing the market approximately two weeks ago.

Rubino said the Watts Group encourages all who attend and participate to wear appropriate facial coverings and follow social distancing guidelines – something he said has been particularly easy, as interactions tend to be brief.

“We recommend that everyone comply with the mayor’s mask mandate,” Rubino said. “We ask our vendors and our customers, and we have about 95 percent or higher participation in mask wearing. We do remind people of social distancing, and again because it’s just the nature of the farmers’ market, these interactions are fairly brief, and being outdoors we feel mitigates the risk of [spreading COVID-19].”

Rubino said he believes allowing the market to run in an in-person format has had a positive effect on the Coralville community for both customers and vendors.

“I think [hosting the markets in-person] has been a positive impact [on the community],” Rubino said. “I think that some of these vendors, this is how they support their livelihood, and with other markets being canceled for the year, this is kind of a welcome relief for a lot of the vendors, and I think that the community, since they see most people wearing masks, they feel that this is a safe environment and a good way to get outside.”

Coralville residents Lee and Melinda Turnbull are participating as vendors for the first time at the market with their “Pop-Pop’s Garden” station. Lee Turnbull said they did not participate virtually, as they were not prepared to engage in the online format of the market.

“In our situation, since this is just our first year, we didn’t have a lot of web presence,” Lee Turnbull said. “We weren’t organized to do the online market, but we’ve enjoyed doing the in-person one.”

RELATED: Iowa City Farmers Market will not reopen this season

Melinda Turnbull said they have enjoyed being part of the farmers markets over the past few months in person, one of their favorite parts being the relationships they have developed with community members who attend the markets.

“It’s been fun,” Melinda Turnbull said. “We’ve really made friends with a lot of customers, because we’re able to interact [in-person].”

Although Lee and Melinda said they have enjoyed the in-person markets, Lee said he knows of other farmers who prefer the online format of the markets, as it is easier for them to estimate their product demand, as well as produce less waste.

“I know some of the other farmers that do the online, and they really like it…they just prepare exactly what people want, so they don’t end up having a lot of extra stuff,” Lee Turnbull said.

Melinda Turnbull said the couple participates in two in-person farmers markets and donates their leftover produce to Grow Johnson County, as well as other local food pantries, ensuring that their produce does not go to waste.

Some of the many products available at the Coralville Farmers Market 201 E. 9th St..As seen on Monday, Sept 14, 2020. (Jeff Sigmund)

“[Grow Johnson County] distributes produce to the food pantries and everything else,” Melinda Turnbull said. “It works out really well, because we do the two markets, University Heights and then this one, and we give whatever’s left to the food pantries.”

Recreation Programs Supervisor with the City of Iowa City Morgan Gerdes said the Iowa City’s Farmers’ Market was moved online due to health and safety concerns brought by COVID-19. Despite the transition, she said she thought the market has been rather successful.

“It’s been going very well,” Gerdes said. “It’s been a great partnership with Field to Family, and we’ve been able to provide access to local foods throughout this whole process.”

Director of Field to Family Michelle Kenyon said Field to Family has collaborated with the City of Iowa City in the past but did not become involved with hosting the Iowa City Farmers Market until this spring, when COVID-19 became a prevalent issue in the community.

“Seeing that there could be the possibility of no farmers’ market because of COVID-19, I was looking for a way that Field to Family could help [the] situation,” Kenyon said. “I applied for a climate change grant, for us to be able to do a curbside farmers market model.”

Kenyon said the City of Iowa City and Field to Family were excited to continue the farmers market for this year, especially to support long-time vendors and customers.

“[There are] farmers who had vended with them [the Iowa City Farmers Market] for years, some decades, and so we worked together to expand the idea to have a full-on a la cart online market,” Kenyon said.

RELATED: Iowa farmers struggle as COVID-19 impacts ripple through food supply

Kenyon said continuing to host the market has positively impacted many farmers, since they still have the opportunity to sell produce and other goods. However, she said, the community remains upset that they were not able to host it in-person because of the pandemic.

“In some ways, it’s been really good for the farmers,” Kenyon said. “For some farmers, it’s been disappointing. We’re all disappointed, we all wanted to go to the farmers market this year…it’s all disappointing that we can’t have the actual in-person farmers market, it’s a wonderful experience.”

Kenyon said the farmers market serves between 400 to 500 customers per week – a success that involved mutual efforts from both Field to Family and the City of Iowa City.

“For this, it really took a community effort to make it happen,” Kenyon said. “A partnership with both the City of Iowa City and Field to Family.”

With vendors from all different age groups and areas, Kenyon said it was somewhat of a challenge to ensure all farmers were able to access the online platform and record their available produce and goods online.

“It took a lot of work to support the farmers’ going online,” Kenyon said. “It’s a different type of way to market your product, and it still amazes me when I think about what it took to get everyone online. We are working with people who have limited internet at home, out at their farm, we’re working with farmers who use paper method for everything, so them taking this chance and making this change is pretty incredible.”