Small farmers' business growing
Ali Dziedzinski, president of Hundred Acre Farms in Smyrna, is going to have a lot of strawberries on her hands this spring.
The family-run, fourth-generation farm has been a big hit at the Asbury Church Farmers Market the past two years, selling fruit, baked goods and jams made with fresh honey. This year, they were planning on opening a you-pick strawberry patch, but the coronavirus pandemic will likely bring their plans to a halt.
Since strawberries are perennials, the family put in 1,200 plants last year and another 1,200 this year. “The strawberries are going to come on when they come on,” Dziedzinski said. “We likely won’t be able to do a you-pick, [and] if that’s the case, we can’t go to the market either.”
Still, she remains positive. “If the market opens, we’ll absolutely be there. Maybe this time spent at home will spur more interest [in] coming outside and coming out and supporting local,” she said.
Right now, farmers markets are allowed to open after May 15. Delaware Secretary of Agriculture Michael T. Scuse sent a letter to market managers March 19, following the governor’s earlier mandate to postpone all gatherings of 50 people or more.
“We know there are a couple of markets that typically open in April, but the majority open in late May to early June, when asparagus, strawberries, and blueberries are a huge draw for farmers market shoppers,” he wrote in the letter. “If we can be diligent in reducing the spread of this virus now, hopefully you will be able [to] open when these popular fruits and vegetables are in season.”
About half a dozen farmers markets will delay opening by two weeks, said Kathy Jackson, Delaware Department of Agriculture marketing specialist. In the meantime, she said, farmers will be looking for ways to get their food out to customers, whether that’s through community-supported agriculture programs, which are like subscriptions to local produce, or on-farm markets.
“I encourage everybody to pay attention to their social media and to whatever farms are in their area,” Jackson said. “Even if farmers markets aren’t open, farmers will be looking for outlets for their produce because once you plant it, it’s going to grow.”
Two of the state’s biggest farmers markets are in Rehoboth and Lewes, Jackson said.
The Rehoboth Beach Farmers Market was to open May 5. Market manager Pat Coluzzi hopes to open after May 15, but she said she thinks the Department of Agriculture may delay that further.
“[We’re] going to wait until we have a clearer picture of what’s happening,” she said. Meanwhile, she is developing a plan for a modified, less social farmers market.
She hopes to send a complete plan to the DDA, including fewer vendors, more spaced out tables, one-way paths and controlled entrances. She compared it to a European market where only the vendor will handle the food.
The Historic Lewes Farmers Market will be taking similar measures to make the market safer during the pandemic. For example, they plan to only allow food vendors, increase distance between vendors and customers and put up handwashing stations.
“We have shifted all emphasis to ensuring safe access to fresh foods,” market manager Helaine Harris said in a statement. “The market for the foreseeable future won’t be a meeting place or place for socializing.”
Since Coluzzi started the Rehoboth market 15 years ago, she said she has seen it grow and become a significant part of the community for both locals and tourists. She typically offers ready-to-eat food to enjoy at picnic tables, and she has already booked musicians to play each week. “I’ll probably have to cancel all that,” she said.
She said she will miss seeing neighbors come together. “For the city of Rehoboth Beach, it’s really the only type of community event that we have that people go to each week.”
Not just entertainment, many markets provide support for the community. Capital City Farmers Market in Dover gives out free lunches for students during the summer and hosts other activities for kids. Several markets partner with the state to accept vouchers from seniors and low-income families in the WIC program.
Brynn Voshell, Dover’s market manager, said she plans to open by June 10 and expects to make some changes to keep everyone safe. “We truly hope that by June, this pandemic will be cleared,” she said.
Even without the social aspect, Coluzzi said it’s important that the market opens, especially when some may prefer an outdoor market to grocery stores. “I do think it’s very important to the community, and we will continue to move forward with it,” she said. “We’re not going to forget all the people who shop at the market. We’ll get through this.”
Farmers on social media
Delaware farmers markets continue to grow in popularity and profit. They hit an all-time sales record of $3.28 million in 2019 and have made 11 times more profit than in 2007 when the Department of Agriculture began tracking.
Jackson said part of that growth is thanks to farmers and market managers who have learned to publicize their products on social media and online.
“They’re getting really savvy with marketing, so that’s a great way for the customers to feel that close link with a particular farmer or a particular farmers market that they’ve developed a relationship with,” she said.
Several owners of small farms said their social media presence coupled with in-person relationships from farmers markets has helped grow their clientele.
Social media has played an even bigger role as many people stay at home during the pandemic. Bill Powers, owner of Powers Farm in Townsend, said their Facebook page has jumped in followers, surpassing 5,600 likes.
“It keeps going up every day now with what’s going on,” he said. Since grocery store shelves are often sparse and people want to support small businesses, Powers said more people are looking for local, quality meat.
Amanda and Mike Bodine of Bodine Farms and Meat Market in Hartly agreed.
“We’ve had a huge influx of customers, and a lot of our regular customers have put our name out there,” Amanda Bodine said. Mike Bodine added that they were completely out of beef at one point. “It’s been tough to keep up with the demand,” he said.
They were planning to sell at the markets in Smyrna and Dover with hopes of expanding their customer base.
Mike Bodine said people may be reluctant to go to farmers markets when they first open, but he’s hopeful. “It may be a slow start, but that said, I think the fact that everybody has looked into small business and they went out and bought meat from us and vegetables that are local to the area and maybe in the end of it, it will bring more people out to shop locally.”
Chuck McGowan, market manager at Asbury Church Farmers Market, said farmers markets are an ideal way to support the community.
“Farmers markets have more of a significant effect on the local community than shopping at big box stores because their money is going directly to the farmer and producer instead of having that pay for supply chains,” he said. “More money is spent locally and goes to local businesses by buying at farmers markets.”
Every farmer and market manager interviewed said that farmers markets are likely growing in popularity because more people are interested in where their food comes from.
“I care about what I buy, where I buy it from and how it gets to me,” said Ali Dziedzinski of Hundred Acre Farms. While she said she may think this way because she grew up on a farm, others said they have noticed this trend.
Summer Thomas of Marydel is a University of Delaware junior and one of the market managers and vendors at Asbury Church Farmers Market. After spending the last year as the Mar-Del Watermelon Queen, representing watermelon farmers and talking to consumers, she is diving into the world of farmers markets.
Enthusiastic to continue sharing her knowledge of agriculture, she said she is not alone. “Farmers truly care about the products they produce and the consumers they’re feeding.”
Beyond being an educational connection, marketing tool and source of additional income, McGowan said farmers markets support young farmers who are starting out like Thomas.
Thomas said she believes this season will be a special one. “Farmers markets are a way of bringing people together and supporting local business, which is what I think people will really need once we get through this hard time,” she said.