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Farmers markets stand strong despite strict state guidelines

Low attendance at some, but steady sales across the state

Emily Lytle
Dover Post
Customer Chuck Ware (right) visits Doug Wood of 302 Aquaponics at the Capital City Farmers Market in Dover.
  • The first full week of August is National Farmers Market Week.
  • Riverwalk Farmers Market in Milford will celebrate its 25th anniversary Saturday, Aug. 8.
  • All but a few of Delaware's farmers markets have stayed open during the pandemic. Market managers have reported that people are buying more this year.

As Brynn Voshell, market manager for the Capital City Farmers Market in downtown Dover, looked out at Loockerman Way Plaza where four white tents displayed vibrant flowers, vegetables and homemade soaps, the scene was a little too quiet. 

“It really hurts that this is what it looks like, especially being out here last year where you [saw] the kids running around doing the crafts,” she said. 

Following Delaware Department of Agriculture guidelines, the market cannot promote any kind of social gathering. This means no live music, food trucks, food samples, demonstrations or workshops. 

“I had musical acts lined up for the whole year for every single week,” Voshell said. “I had to cancel all of them.”

Without these social activities, attendance is down at Dover’s market. “This isn’t what people expect when they think, ‘farmers market,’” Voshell said. 

Brett Herzog, a produce vendor from Endless Futures Farm in Clayton, said food trucks especially help the market. Without them, “it hurts everybody, including, more than anything, the customers that want to come and get their food and take it home,” he said. 

Brett Herzog, Endless Futures Farm in Clayton, has been coming to Capital City Farmers Market in Dover for the past few years. He said this year is slower than normal, but people seem to be spending more.

As the Delaware Department of Agriculture prepares new guidelines for phase three of reopening, Kathy Jackson, marketing specialist, said they are considering a common request to allow food trucks that sell to-go items.

“The markets that used to rely on food trucks and entertainment … that’s been a challenge for them to kind of do the change over to [selling] all produce and some craft products that are agriculturally related,” Jackson said. 

While a few markets, like Milton and Fenwick Island, have closed for the season, Jackson said most remain open. 

Doug Wood, a new vendor and owner of  302 Aquaponics, grows and sells fresh greens at markets across the state. He said he was disappointed when Milton closed, and the others have been slow.

“I think people are afraid to get out,” he said. While he sells to the Smyrna School District and some boutique grocery stores, he said, “It’s hard operating at half speed.”

Market hours and season

Capital City Farmers Market

  • 126 W. Loockerman St., Dover
  • Wednesdays 3 to 6 p.m.
  • Last weekly date is Sept. 2
  • Two extra dates Sept. 23 and Oct. 7
  • Facebook.com/capitalcityfarmersmarket/

Carousel Park Farmers Market

  • 3700 Limestone Road, Wilmington
  • Fridays 2 to 6 p.m. 
  • Season ends Oct. 30
  • nccde.org/455/Farmers-Markets 

Asbury Church Farmers Market

  • Glenwood Avenue, next to Glenwood Cemetery, Smyrna
  • Saturdays 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. 
  • Season ends Sept. 5
  • www.facebook.com/Asbury-Church-Farmers-Market-2077482435854703/ 

Riverwalk Farmers Market

  • South Walnut Street and Mispillion Riverwalk, Milford
  • Saturdays 9 a.m. to noon with the 25th anniversary celebration Saturday, Aug. 8
  • Season expected to go through October
  • downtownmilford.org/events/farmers-market/ 

Historic Lewes Farmers Market

  • George H.P. Smith Park
  • Dupont & Johnson Avenues, Lewes
  • Saturdays 8 a.m. to noon
  • Last day at park is Sept. 26, but market continues through November at Richard A. Shields Elementary School

Crooked Hammock Brewery (HLFM second location)

  • 37707 Crooked Hammock Way, Lewes
  • Wednesdays 8 to 11 a.m. 
  • Season ends Aug. 26
  • www.historiclewesfarmersmarket.org/ 

Connecting with the community

Two other vendors, Derby Mill Farm and Black Swamp Farmstead, are just starting their agricultural businesses and participating in farmers markets to help connect with the community. “This is kind of our year to get out and take it to the streets,” said Justin Brant of Black Swamp Farmstead in Felton. “It was really hard. 

This is the first year at the Capital City Farmers Market for Tara and Justin Brant of Black Swamp Farmstead in Felton.
Sisters Paula Soghomonian and Vicki Cronis-Nohe moved back to central Delaware about a year ago and started their business Derby Mill Farm. They grow and sell flowers, herbs and some vegetables at farmers markets in Delaware and Maryland.

Herzog agreed that attendance is low, but he pointed out that the few customers seem to be spending more. “With all this, people have a new appreciation for local, knowing where their food is coming from,” he said. 

Michael Begatto, community services coordinator for New Castle County, said he is seeing a similar pattern. “The customers that are visiting our markets are spending,” he said. “They feel more comfortable in the outdoor setting than they do in the grocery stores.”

Each week, attendance seems to go up, Begatto said. While some customers still have to wait in line before entering Carousel Park Farmers Market in Pike Creek, Begatto said he is hopeful that will go away as the market adds more vendors and raises the customer capacity limit.

Customers follow a one-way path and stay socially distant from vendors who are separated with caution tape at Carousel Park Farmers Market in Pike Creek.

“It’s challenging for our staff, but so far, I believe they’ve done a fantastic job and our customers have been great in cooperating as well,” he said. 

Complying with COVID guidelines

Stepping up to similar challenges, the Historic Lewes Farmers Market has rallied its volunteers to help make sure that people are social distancing and wearing masks. 

“When you go into our market, the first thing you’ll see is we have two handwashing stations onsite, and we also have someone who sprays, sanitizes people’s hands as they go in,” said Helaine Harris, president of HLFM.

A volunteer at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market reminds people what six-feet of social distance looks like by showing them a pool noodle.

Because each vendor must be spaced 12-feet apart, the market at George H.P. Smith Park was forced to drop about 25% of its vendors. Harris said customer attendance has halved compared to last year.

 “I think everybody feels a little bit of sadness about it not being able to be a meeting place it used to be,” Harris said. “It really was the town square for Lewes.”

Many vendors at Lewes have adapted by starting to accept charge cards or providing pre-order options. Both Lewes and Dover provide a list of available vendors and products in emails, so people can make a grocery list before going.

After designing the Riverwalk Farmers Market in Milford with one-way entrances and exits and setting up handwashing stations, Trish Gerken, director of Downtown Milford Incorporated, said the biggest challenge has been finding enough volunteers to do new tasks like counting people as they enter the market or monitoring handwashing.

“There are some people who are still hesitant to come out,” Gerken said. “Luckily, we have a core group who are just phenomenal.”

A scene at Riverwalk Farmers Market in downtown Milford where all customers must wear masks. The popular market has seen attendance and sales soar this year.

Jackson said she has noticed this challenge statewide since volunteers tend to be people who are retired or have higher health risks, making them cautious to come out. “The strain on the market managers and their volunteers with this process is ...it’s beginning to show,” she said. “You have more work and a shrinking pool of people available to do it.”

Bright spots amid challenges

In Smyrna, Asbury Church Farmers Market had to cut down its vendor list by about half since vendors must sell products directly related to agriculture. “We’re kind of doing it on a shoestring vendor list of people who just sell veggies, baked goods and soap,” said Chuck McGowan, market manager.

At right, Summer Thomas, owner of Four Seasons of Summer, hands squash to Karen Keen at the Asbury Church Farmers Market on Glenwood Avenue in Smyrna Saturday.

Unlike other markets, though, McGowan said both attendance and sales have increased from previous years. “It’s been going better than I expected, considering the fact that we’re still in the middle of July, and the pandemic is still around instead of waning,” he said. “The community has been great to us and we really appreciate it.”

The downtown Milford community has similarly shown an outpouring of support at the Riverwalk Farmers Market, Gerken said. Many vendors have been selling out and attendance has been up, with one week seeing as many as 400 visitors. 

“With the restrictions this year and COVID-19, the flip kind of switched where you are specifically going to get your local produce and going home,” Gerken said. “The feedback we’re getting from the community is just … they have so much gratitude that we’re able to stay open.”

The Milford market typically ends its season the first weekend in October, but organizers expect to extend the season throughout the month. While hosting a big party is off the table, the market will celebrate its 25th anniversary with raffles and special prizes Saturday, Aug. 8.

People donate produce to Epworth United Methodist Food Pantry at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market.

Farmers markets are finding ways to give back, too. New Castle County waived its vendor fees, Lewes started a new program where people can donate produce to Epworth United Methodist Food Pantry and Dover began offering onsite vouchers for the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

“I do this so that people have the opportunity to get the fresh produce,” Voshell said. “We want this community to thrive.”