By Pam George
On a summer afternoon in June, the Nassau Valley Vineyards is a destination — and not just because of the wine. On Sundays in summer, the scenic Lewes site hosts the Nassau Valley Vineyards Farmers Market, which runs from noon to 3 p.m.
But it’s hardly business as usual.
For one, customers must wear face coverings to guard against the transmission of the novel coronavirus. People must move in one direction; there’s no doubling back. Customers can’t touch the merchandise. Socializing — once as much a part of the market as fresh strawberries and juicy peaches — is discouraged.
For many faithful customers, the rules are a small price to pay. At one point, consumers faced the prospect of a summer without farmers markets, which were considered nonessential Delaware businesses. Policymakers reconsidered after vendors and consumers lobbied for their opening.
“Overall, I’m happy to have it open, and I’ll continue to attend,” says Kelly Grovola, a frequent customer at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market.
Still, the changes have required an adjustment.
What’s Old is New Again
In the past, farmers primarily sold their wares at farmers markets. The original Wilmington market, which started in the early 1900s, was an eight-block stretch on King Street. In the 1950s, the proliferation of big supermarkets lessened the demand for fresh farm products.
In the late 20th century and early 21st century, interest in farmers markets soared. Consumers not only wanted fresh, local produce, but they wanted to meet the farmer. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, by 2019 there were more than 8,800 farmers markets in the United States.
Selling direct to consumers can help young farmers grow their business. However, they face increasing competition from direct-delivery services, such as Misfits Market, and grocery stores with organic produce.
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented another obstacle.
Farmers Markets are Essential
The Co-Op Farmers Market in Newark and the Lewes and Rehoboth markets typically open in May. Others start in June. But during Delaware’s state of emergency, the Department of Agriculture announced that seasonal farmers markets could not open per usual.
Market managers and the public met the news with an outcry. Restaurants and supermarkets were essential, why not markets? With the assistance of the Delaware Farmers Market Coalition, a group of market managers from across the state, the Delaware Department of Agriculture issued protocols to help the markets open on May 15.
“Farmers markets will not be the same social experience as they were prior to COVID-19, but we hope that Delawareans will utilize the markets as a place to purchase locally produced food,” Secretary of Agriculture Michael T. Scuse said in a statement.
Right now, markets aren’t offering entertainment or food trucks. There is a capacity limit. During Phase II of the state’s reopening, markets can have four times the number of customers in the market as there are vendor booths. (If there are six vendor booths, for instance, then the maximum is 24 customers).
There is a designated entrance and exit, and vendors are 12 feet from each other. At the Rehoboth Beach Farmers Market, vendors are well spaced in Grove Park, says Nina Perry, who works with Paul’s Kitchen, which sells Italian products. “I love that aspect; it’s great.”
But other parts of the new normal are more challenging.
Meeting Consumers’ Needs
When the Historic Lewes Farmers Market opened for the first time this year, a line formed around the block and down toward Savannah Road, recalls Keith Irwin, owner of Old World Breads and a market veteran.
There was a similar scene when the Rehoboth Beach Farmers Market opened. “I’m very grateful because they are coming out to support local businesses,” Perry says.
Given that many people had been staying at home, vendors had to guess which products would be in high demand, says Timothy Fields, owner of Baywater Farms in Salisbury, Maryland. “What have they been craving? Will they want what we have? We need to get into the market mode.”
To make sure Old World Breads has a sufficient amount of product — and little excess — Irwin began accepting online orders, preferably with a 48-hour notice. (Bread can take days to make.) Consumers can pick up their orders at the farmers markets. (Customers can also preorder sandwiches and other menu items that Old World Breads now offers.)
The pandemic has prompted other market innovations. Some Delaware markets, including Carousel Park Farmers Market, only offer drive-through service.
At the pedestrian markets, the one-way requirement is challenging for shoppers who like to scope out the wares and then return to their favorite stalls. “It’s forcing people to make a decision right then and there,” Perry says. She’s lost sausage sales to customers who purchased them from a vendor closer to the entrance.
At press time, Irwin had decided not to participate in out-of-state markets, partly because he’s had a reduction in staff. Several employees were uncomfortable working with the public.
No doubt the absence of downtown workers led to the decision to close the Wilmington Farmers Market on Rodney Square, which had a brisk lunchtime business. The market also had a plethora of food trucks. The Fenwick Island Farmers Market is also closed until further notice.
At the markets that have opened, customers are seemingly going with the flow. “It’s great to see our vendors and buy straight from the farm,” says Debra Evald. “It isn’t the social hour we usually have, but we were able to see friends to smile, wave and say hello. That felt great, too.”
For a complete list of the state’s farmers markets and their hours, go to https://agriculture.delaware.gov/communications-marketing/farmers-markets-guide/.