Coronavirus pandemic puts First State farmers markets in limbo
As the state tips its toe in the reopening waters – allowing some businesses to reopen in a limited fashion with significant restrictions – one area usually ramping up this time of year faces uncertainty. Farmers markets have been told they must stay closed for now.
Contributor Eileen Dallabrida checks in with these markets and vendors that sell at them to learn how they’re dealing with the forced hiatus.
The first week in May, when tender asparagus shoots push their way through the warming soil of Sussex County, Lenore Brady heads to the farmers’ markets to sell her crop.
But this year, as the COVID-19 pandemic pummels the nation’s food supply chain, Delaware farmers’ markets are closed and most of Brady’s asparagus have gone to fern. She and her husband are pondering whether it’s worth it to plant 650 heirloom tomato plants waiting to go into the ground.
“This is devasting to our farm, not only for us but for many other farmers,” she says.
Delaware is the only state in the region where farmers’ markets remain closed. Currently, markets are operating with varying restrictions in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and a number of other states. In New York, the state hardest hit by the pandemic, markets have remained open throughout the crisis.
"I see liquor stores open, gun stores open, and now jewelry stores, while we have been going back and forth with the Department of Agriculture since mid-April." Helaine Harris, president of Historic Lewes Farmers Market
Farmers and market managers say the venues are essential services, providing fresh, locally produced food to customers. While Gov. John Carney has allowed department stores, book stores, salons and other businesses to resume limited operations, state guidance issued to market managers says the state’s 20-plus markets won’t be permitted to open until the state of emergency is lifted.
“I see liquor stores open, gun stores open, and now jewelry stores, while we have been going back and forth with the Department of Agriculture since mid-April,” says Helaine Harris, president of Historic Lewes Farmers Market. “Our vendors have been calling us asking ‘what should we plant?’”
‘A communal experience’
Stacey Hofmann, a spokeswoman for the Delaware Department of Agriculture, says farmers' markets are shut down because the government is trying to prevent large gatherings of people.
Hofmann says equating the experience of shopping at grocery stores with buying food at farmers’ markets is comparing apples to oranges.
“In a grocery store setting, individuals enter the store at various times to purchase various items; they move around the store individually—subject to strict social-distancing guidelines set out by state and federal health authorities —and they leave when they have achieved their purpose,” she said in a statement. “A farmer’s market, in contrast, is by design a communal experience, one for which a large group of individuals come together at the same time in the same place for the same purpose.”
The Lewes market and at least one other venue have submitted plans to Michael Scuse, the state secretary of agriculture, proposing the markets open with such safety measures as closed perimeters, masks for vendors and patrons, handwashing stations, signage posting social distancing rules and marked, one-way paths. Vendors must supply and operate out of their own tents, which would be spaced at least six feet apart. No cooking demonstrations, no tastings, no entertainment allowed.
“We want to get down to the core of who we are, getting fresh, locally grown food to people,” Harris says. “We are seeing a breakdown in our food delivery chain and we need to do everything we can to help our farmers survive.”
In response, the state asked the markets to come back with a single, comprehensive plan by May 15. Meanwhile, farmers were invited to update their contact information on the Delaware Department of Agriculture Farm Stands Guide and the Delaware Grown website. Market vendors were encouraged to open farm stands or sell directly to customers who visit their farms.
But farmers say they aren’t equipped to build or staff stands. Many farms are located on rural roads, where customers are unlikely to travel.
Brady’s 60-acre spread, Stag Run Farm, is located on a sleepy stretch between Georgetown and Seaford. She will gladly sell eggs, honey or whatever crop is in season to someone who drops by. But it’s unlikely most shoppers would make the trip.
“We are in the middle of nowhere,” she says.
‘We are about selling food’
Henry Bennett, a sixth-generation farmer, grows blueberries and peaches at Bennett Orchards in Frankford.
He says asking consumers to head to various farms to buy local produce, meats and dairy doesn’t make sense for farmers or their patrons.
“It means people have to leave their homes, which we aren’t supposed to do, instead of the farmer coming into the community and sharing his bounty,” he says.
He sells at markets that are producers-only, meaning the vendors sell only what they have grown themselves.
“Most likely, it’s touched by one person before it is sold, unlike lengthy supply chains that involve multiple hands to get to the supermarket,” he says.
"We aren't about playing music. We are about selling food." Henry Bennett, Bennett Orchards
Bennett, who just turned 30, has been working farmer’s markets since he was 16. He serves on the boards of markets in Bethany Beach, Sea Colony, Rehoboth and Lewes.
Typically, board members get together at libraries. These days, they are meeting by Zoom video conferencing, exploring ways to get the markets back on track.
Bennett says vendors and market managers feel frustrated and misunderstood by the state.
“They think of us as an event rather than a food source,” he says. “We aren’t about playing music. We are about selling food.”
Bennett believes the state’s $2 billion-dollar poultry industry is taking priority over specialty crop growers during the state of emergency and that ruffles his feathers.
“Delaware is pre-occupied by poultry,” he says.
Last month, 2 million chickens were killed because there weren’t enough healthy workers to process them.
At Stag Run Farm, Brady is contemplating thinning her apple orchard by 75 percent if the market for Delaware fruit doesn’t improve.
“We have to cut them back if we don’t sell them,” she says.
Last year, Stag Run produced 16 tons of heirloom honey crisp, five varieties of fujis and other specialty apples. The farm sold 2 tons of asparagus.
This spring, Brady had planned to sell hundreds of pounds of asparagus to restaurants for Mother’s Day menus. When those orders were canceled, she hoped sales at farmers’ markets would take up the slack. In previous years, she has been a regular at markets in Lewes, Rehoboth, Milton, and Nassau Valley.
She did manage to sell 500 pounds at Ocean Pines market in Maryland, the only market outside the state where she operates a booth. She is an assistant manager there and says vendors and patrons have readily adapted to the new normal of shopping at a farmers’ market.
“We have it down to a science and the people know what to do. Our motto is come, shop and leave. One way in, one way out and a safety officer at the gate. Vendors all spread out, signs all around and arrows where to go,” she says.
Here are ways markets are adapting in other states:
- In New York City, business at Union Square Greenmarket is blooming. Vendors select produce, meat, dairy and baked goods for customers because shoppers aren’t allowed to handle the food. Everyone wears masks.
- In southern New Jersey, the Collingswood Farmers’ Market opened for business the first weekend in May using a drive-up format in which customers ordered in advance, paid electronically and picked up their goods at the curb.
- In suburban Chicago, a farmers’ market is limiting the number of patrons who can shop at any one time. Vendors include a caterer, becalmed since mid-March, who sells takeout brisket and pulled pork.
Adapting in hard times
In New Castle County, the former Bellefonte Farmers’ Market is unveiling a new concept called Bellevue Farms, a nonprofit partnership with the county. The market hopes to open the first Friday in June. Meanwhile, volunteers at Bellevue Community Center are delivering boxes of fresh produce to homes. Patrons pay $22 for a small box or $30 for a large box of such seasonal treats as rainbow carrots, sweet potatoes, pink lady apples, canned Jersey tomatoes, and top soy, a dense Asian green that is high in calcium.
“It’s been an opportunity for us to connect with people who didn’t know us before,” says manager Elisa King. “We quickly got up to more than 200 customers and are having a hard time keeping up with demand.”
At Ficner Farm in Leipsic, Justin Grimminger is picking spring onions, kale and arugula while strawberries ripen in the fields. The family has been working the farm for 53 years, since his grandparents came down from Long Island, New York.
Like other farm families, he’s experienced hard times before and is adjusting to try and make do.
“Normally, we are dealing with a dry spell or a pest infestation. But nothing like this,” he said.
Grimminger sells almost exclusively at farmers’ markets: Bethany on Sunday, Rehoboth on Tuesday, Sea Colony on Wednesday, and Lewes on Saturday.
With those revenue streams drought-dry, he has set up an online store where people can pay electronically and pick up their orders at the farm.
“We can’t deliver because it takes too much time away from the farm,” he says.
He’s thought about selling at markets in neighboring states but it takes time to get through the approval process. Plus, he doesn’t want to sign up somewhere else and miss out when markets finally do reopen closer to home.
“The Delaware farmers’ markets have waiting lists,” he says. “We don’t want to commit to someplace else and lose our place.”