DOWNSTATE — Field and orchard harvests are ongoing, and consumers are getting a taste of homegrown freshness and sweetness at Delaware farmers markets, which reflect “new norm” restrictions linked to the coronavirus crisis.
A sampling of markets and vendors indicates that business is quite brisk and the precautionary public health plan tendered by Delaware’s Department of Agriculture is working.
“We’ve had a lot of customers tell us how appreciative they are. I think the customers feel safe,” said Helaine Harris, president of the Historic Lewes Farmers Market. “Sales are fairly decent. We are seeing lower numbers, but that is also because the regulations only allow two people per household. I think what we are seeing at our market is a lot of buyers, not a lot of browsers. You see people coming out with a lot of produce.”
“It has been awesome. I am very surprised,” said Parsons Produce employee Olivia Workman during the July 4 Millsboro Farmers Market.
“Right now, they are doing very well,” said Lenore Brady, co-owner of Stag Run Farm, west of Georgetown.
Under Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency declaration and through collaboration with the Delaware Farmers’ Market Coalition, the state Department of Agriculture announced strict COVID-19 protocols that allowed farmers markets to safely open in mid-May.
“Everybody got together and looked at it and had the foresight to see that, ‘Hey, this is sustainable foods,’” said Ms. Brady. “When I go to the supermarket, I still see shelves empty. So, it is important that we protect our food chain.”
Guidelines imposed to eliminate the “social gathering” aspect that had evolved with markets included:
• No entertainment shows or activities.
• No food trucks or prepared food for consumption on-site.
• No on-site food preparation or sampling.
• No demonstrations.
• No pets, except for service animals.
On Saturday, vendors and customers at downtown Milford’s Riverwalk Farmers Market were happy the market was open, but were less than pleased by the virus-oriented rules and regulations.
“I know people want to come and visit with their vendors, but unfortunately, right now, it’s more of making sure … they‘re getting that local vendor, that local vendor is able to sell, and they’re able to get the local produce that’s needed,” said Melissa Pingue, the committee chair for the Riverwalk Farmers Market.
Lang Redden, the Milford market’s vendor liaison, described the market’s numerous safety precautions.
“We have an enclosed area,” she said. “There’s a single entrance and a single exit. This way, we can monitor the number of people going in and the number of people going out.”
The walkways were organized in a loop with blue lines on the ground marking the requisite 6-foot distance. Shoppers were instructed to walk around the market in a single direction, which Ms. Redden described as “one-way traffic.” She said “doubling back” was not permitted, so if a customer wanted to visit a stand a second time, they had to walk all the way back around.
“We’re asking our vendors to put a buffer table in front of theirs, so (customers are) not just immediately on top of the vendor,” Ms. Redden said.
“Farmers markets I think are a lot safer than stores,” said Ms. Brady. “Everybody is running a very safe market. It would be great if the governor would let more people in at a time (to decrease) the people waiting in lines, especially older people in this heat. The market managers are doing a great job getting in the people that they can get in, but if the governor would let up a little bit on how many people, that would help us a lot.”
Josh Nash of Lincoln-based Nash Veggies said he felt safe at Milford’s Riverwalk Farmers Market, but didn’t like the two-person-per-family rule.
“I’d like it if people could bring their kids. I mean, a lot of people are, but technically, they’re breaking the rules,” he said. “I think the direction of flow is overkill.”
Heather Gilbert of Gilstead Delaware, a Georgetown-based rabbit farm, agreed.
“We have the masks, we have the 6-foot separation,” she said. She didn’t think the “one-way traffic … does a whole lot of anything.”
It “makes it really difficult for a lot of the patrons,” Ms. Gilbert said. “We have a lot of handicapped or elderly (customers). It makes it hard for them to go around. They’re only going to make one trip, and that one trip might be a lot for them.”
The Lewes effort pulls double duty, with a main market Saturday mornings from 8 a.m. to noon at George H.P. Smith Park and a Wednesday market (8-11 a.m.) at the Crooked Hammock Brewery parking lot.
“We have totally enclosed the markets. It’s one way through. Six feet of table between the vendor and the customer. Everybody has to wear a mask properly,” Ms. Harris said. “We’re very happy with the way the market is going. We have not had any problems with customers not wearing masks or anything like that. We have a couple hand-washing stations set up. We spray everybody’s hands who walks in. We’ve had a lot of great compliance from our customers.”
Ms. Harris noted the volunteer effort. “It takes a lot of volunteers for our market,” she said. “We have two shifts of 15 volunteers each shift. So, around 30 volunteers that are basically monitoring social distancing, face masks, explaining how the market works and just answering questions.”
In Millsboro, eight of nine approved vendors were on hand July 4 for the town-sponsored market based at the Millsboro Town Center parking lot.
A handful of others are in Millsboro’s queue, having received necessary paperwork. These may join the weekly market that will run Saturdays through the summer into September. It may run longer, into fall with Town Council’s blessing, Mayor Michelle Truitt said.
“We get some of the same people that come each week. Then, we get a lot of new people stopping in for the first time,” said Mayor Truitt. “We try to do a variety of different vendors, so people can see different things.”
Millsboro attempts to avoid vendors with similar produce to limit intramarket competition.
“And we don’t have the taste-testing sampling that you expect to see at a farmers market,” Mayor Truitt said.
David Godwin, owner of the Adkins Produce fields planted by his grandfather nearly five decades ago, said the season has been very good thus far. Tomatoes were a hot item at the Millsboro market on the Fourth of July.
“Business is great. The locals really enjoy it,” said Mr. Godwin. “A lot of them actually walk here or bicycle. Really, it’s centrally located right here in the middle of town. It’s easy access for everybody.”
Mr. Godwin, who maintains a seven-day-a-week main produce stand at the farm’s Long Neck location, said patrons “appreciate the freshness and not having to go to the store around big crowds of people. And it tastes better.”
Parsons Produce, based at its farm site on Armory Road in Dagsboro, attends markets in Ocean City, Maryland, as well as Lewes and at the Crooked Hammock. Thus far, Millsboro is tops, Ms. Workman said.
“We go to a lot of farmers markets, and this is the best one that we have,” she said. “We’re glad that we are allowed to be out here. (Customers) are excited that we’re out there, and we’re excited to be here.”
Millsboro resident Sylvia Soffron has yet to miss a market date in Millsboro. “I’ve been here every week. We’re very happy with the farmers market,” she said, adding that it’s “better than beating the crowd” at the one in Bethany Beach.
Mayor Truitt said she is pleased with how the Millsboro market is handling adversity.
“We’re happy with how everything is going so far. People are wearing their masks, social distancing … ,” she said.
Ms. Brady touched on the restriction that prohibits consumers from handling produce before purchase.
“I call it that we’re doing a European model. In Europe, you are not allowed to touch the vegetable,” said Ms. Brady. “I love it, that you can’t just touch everything. We are in all these food safety courses, and we do all this food safety, and then, people come in and want to touch it or move it. I love the idea that they can’t touch it. My husband gets them their vegetables, and I cash them out. So, it works out really well.”
In Lewes, the main market draws more than two dozen vendors, while the market at Crooked Hammock features upward of eight.
“At the large market, we have around 26 vendors now. We usually have around 35, but we had to cut vendors to create the 12-foot space that we needed for the (Delaware Department of Agriculture) protocols,” Ms. Harris said.
The Crooked Hammock Brewery location is ideal for people who are challenged by walking a lot, since parking is very close, Ms. Harris said.
Ms. Brady, who serves as the assistant market manager in Ocean Pines, Maryland, said the farm she and her husband, Craig, operate could not survive without these markets.
“Thank God for Lewes, and for Rehoboth and for the Nassau Valley (Vineyard market). Those staying open has been a godsend to my farm,” said Ms. Brady. “My business is based on farmers markets to sell our products to the consumer. I need those farmers markets. They are a lifeline.”
Stag Run Farm, which features 1,500 apple trees and about two dozen varieties, expects to take a hit financially, with closure of the Milton farmers market and the COVID-19-related cancellation of Bridgeville’s huge Apple Scrapple Festival.
“We are based on special events and farmers markets to keep our farm sustained. What we are running into is Milton closing, so that is a huge hit to me. Now, Apple Scrapple has been canceled,” Ms. Brady said. “So, I think it is going to be a really tough year for us financially with the hits that we are taking.”
Ms. Brady said they have modified their business model, but added, “We’re not going to recoup some of the major losses.”
Vendors at Milford’s market were also grateful it would remain open.
While Ms. Gilbert said Gilstead Delaware takes many orders via phone and sells a lot of rabbit meat to local restaurants, Mr. Nash said his vegetable farm is extremely dependent on the Riverwalk Farmers Market.
If the market had closed for the year, “that would have a detrimental impact on my farm,” he said. “This represents more than 50% of my overall sales for the year.”
The Lewes market also features a SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) tent outside the market perimeter.
“It can’t be inside because there is not enough room,” said Ms. Harris. “We want to remind people that we take SNAP, WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition coupons.”