(ITHACA, NY – June 8, 2020) As many local garden fairs and plant sales across New York State were being postponed or cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak, Master Gardener volunteers and horticulture staff members at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCE-Tompkins) managed to adapt their long-running Annual Spring Garden Fair & Plant Sale to meet new social distancing requirements, in consultation with local Health Department officials.
Organized since 1982 by Master Gardener volunteers, the Spring Garden Fair & Plant Sale is one of the largest and most complete events of this kind in the Finger Lakes and is highly anticipated by both gardening enthusiasts and specialty plant vendors across the region. In most years, the sale is held at Ithaca High School, where it attracts a crowd of 3,500 or more gardeners who choose from an extensive array of edible and ornamental plants offered for sale by at least 40 different small growers and gardening groups. Sales often tally more than $60,000 during the 5-hour period the event is open.The sale consistently generates important early season sales for local garden centers and small growers, as well as for the Master Gardener volunteers, who fund many of their annual activities with proceeds from the sale of plants they donate from their own gardens.
Scaling back this large and successful event was a challenge. In consultation with Tompkins County Health Department officials, Agriculture Program staff members Graham Savio, Mila Fornier and Monika Roth devised a plan to move the sale to a location more conducive to social distancing (the Ithaca Farmers’ Market Pavilion at Steamboat Landing) where vendor spaces more easily could be spread out. They also implemented “timed entry admissions” on the hour that would allow only 100 shoppers into the sale at a time. The Market Pavilion would be cleared of all shoppers shortly before each hour to allow vendors time to sanitize their areas and prepare for the next group to arrive. Staff and volunteers would handle admissions on-site during the event.
"We felt is was important to hold the sale for multiple reasons" says Mila Fournier, Ag Educator at CCE-Tompkins. "The interest in gardening and especially in food growing has grown exponentially during covid with people having a new awareness of issues of food insecurity so we wanted to make sure people had access to healthy, locally grown starts. In addition, many of our small local nursery businesses count on the Plant Sale for needed revenue. In this pandemic crisis, it is all the more important that we continue to support our local businesses," she concluded.
A limited number of "at-the-door" entry tickets were available for each hour, but attendees were encouraged to preregister online for specific time slots to be certain they’d get in. When 500 free tickets for the first date of Sunday, May 17th quickly “sold out” online, a second date of Monday, May 25th (Memorial Day) was added. For the first sale, only growers selling primarily food-producing plants could participate, due to NY State limits on businesses that could operate during the coronavirus outbreak. By the second date, those limits had been lifted and growers of ornamental plants also could participate in the sale.
The organizers experienced some potential glitches along the way. A week before the first sale date, an employee at Ithaca’s popular GreenStar Cooperative Market tested positive for Covid-19, and shoppers in the store on certain dates were tested and asked to self-quarantine until their test results were returned. This group included two of the sale’s main organizers. Luckily Margaret Royall, a newly hired part-time staff member in the Horticulture program was able to jump in on her third day of work and take charge of the event. "Margaret did a stellar job, showing an exceptional level of grace and unflappability in the face of such a new and challenging process," said Fournier.
Perhaps due to increased concerns about Covid-19 following this incident, approximately 1/3 of those with reserved tickets for the first sale did not attend. Prior to the 2nd sale date, organizers again conferred with Health Department officials to review attendance figures and photos from the first event and were allowed to increase timed admission numbers to permit 200 shoppers in the Market pavilion per hour, resulting in stronger yet still socially distanced attendance on the second sale date. Total figures were 354 attendees on 5/17 and 640 on 5/25, for a total of almost 1,000 shoppers.
Although the crowds were smaller than they are in a normal year, vendors were positive about their experience and sales.Surveys from them now are being returned and results will be compiled to get a clearer sense of the income this sale was able to generate for them. Master Gardener volunteers, who for the first time in 38 years did not have a booth at the event, held a mini plant sale in the CCE-Tompkins parking lot on June 5th to sell plants they had potted up from their own gardens to raise funds for their programs.
Gardeners who attended the two main plant sale dates were enthusiastic and offered very positive feedback.As one attendee wrote to us, “Thanks so much for a great plant sale today. It went really well, I thought. You all thought creatively to make it happen and were organized, competent, and warm in executing it. I loved it! The waiting line, the check in, the email instructions ahead and verbal instructions this morning, how the sale was organized - all were really well done. I think most of all I appreciated a cheerful yet safe gathering. You all were cheerful, so were the vendors, it all seemed almost normal and was a wonderful entry to spring. Plus I got some great plants!”
For questions about the Annual Spring Garden Fair & Plant Sale, contact Mila Fournier, Agriculture Educator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (607) 272-2292 ext. 194.
Last updated June 9, 2020