A stall at the Newport Farmer's Market in Oregon. Photo: Facebook

It’s 8:45 on a Saturday morning and my wife Nancy and I are outside the Newport Farmer’s Market, in Newport, Oregon, waiting for the 9am opening in a socially distanced line that wraps around the corner. We’re hoping no more than 73 people are ahead of us. The market admits only 75 at a time.

It feels strange. A year ago, there were no lines and no limits on crowd size. But then Covid-19 has brought many changes to many things, farmers markets included.

Thankfully, the most important things at our market have remained the same – the farmers. Most of the regulars and all of our favorites still have stands.

We can still buy meat from Walker Farms. Sarah and Randy Walker raise and butcher chickens, pigs and lambs. Everyone loves talking to Sarah, who operates their stand.

We can still buy seriously good “Old River” coffee beans from Herb Jennings, who roasts them himself.

We can still buy strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and peaches from Pablo Munoz farms. During our winters in Washington, DC, we look forward to the Munoz fruit. It’s much tastier than the best we can buy at the best supermarkets back east.

The same is true of the vegetables we buy from Gathering Together Farms, which has the largest stand in the market and the widest selection of produce. They have oodles of varieties of tomatoes of different sizes, shapes and colors, practically a separate stand. Their homemade salsa is the best. One reason we’ve always come for the opening is that Gathering Together’s salsa goes fast.

The other reason we come early is, unfortunately, history now. Breakfast at the market was part of the fun. The market provided tables at the northeast corner of the parking lot, along with silverware and napkins.

Three stands sold pastries. One made huevos rancheros, tacos and other Mexican delicacies. Others offered barbecued ribs and pulled pork; grilled cheese sandwiches and home-made soup; and bratwurst and wiener schnitzel. We’d rotate among them from week to week.

Alas, those breakfasts are a thing of the past. There are no more tables. Almost all the food providers are gone, though Herb still sells cups of his Old River coffee as well as beans. Breakfasts are discouraged, probably because cleaning and disinfecting tables would overwhelm market organizers. Sit-down dining would also encourage people to linger, lengthening the time in line for those waiting to enter.

It isn’t just the food we miss; it’s the company. We miss our breakfast buddies, the people with whom we often ended up sharing a table. We knew them only by first name but learned a lot about them and their families. We want to learn more. Bill and Ruth, where are you? How are your grandkids doing?

Of all things we miss the dogs. We’re dog lovers but not dog owners (we travel too much, at least in normal times, and feel it’s unfair to pets to constantly abandon them). There were dogs in every aisle in past years; it was fun petting them and fun talking to their owners. Dogs aren’t allowed in now. They encourage people to socialize.

No one can fault the market’s organizers for wanting to discourage socializing. They’re right to take the pandemic seriously. The last thing anyone wants is for the market to become a Covid-19 hot spot.

Still, socializing is one of the things we miss most. The coronavirus has helped us understand how important the company of other people was to our enjoyment of the market.

We’d put the Newport Farmer’s Market up against any anywhere for the things all farmers markets do – provide good, locally produced fruits, vegetables and meat. What made it even better, though, were some of the other things. Herb’s coffee. The stands of local artisans, like the guy who makes walking sticks and the woman who makes homemade jewelry. The breakfasts. The dogs. And especially, the sense of community.

The Newport Farmer’s Market used to teem with life. It was delightfully crowded. Interactions with others were inevitable. Being here made you feel alive. Owing to the terrible disease that’s plaguing the world, it has lost some of that. We are eager for the day when we get it back.

Former longtime Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent and editor Urban Lehner is editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. This article, originally published September 11 by that news organization and now republished by Asia Times with permission, is © Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.

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