Helaine Harris is not a full-time resident of Lewes – but she’s one of the most recognizable faces at the city’s most popular weekly event.
Like thousands of others, Harris, 58, heads to Lewes Historical Society every Saturday morning to hear the bell ring, signaling the opening of Historic Lewes Farmers Market. Unlike thousands of others, Harris can say she spearheaded the market and made it one of the most successful farmers markets in the nation.
Harris is vice president of Daedalus Books and Music, an overstock book retailer in Columbia, Md. Though she describes herself as a business-minded person, she said she has always taken an interest in good food. “I’ve always gone to farmers markets,” Harris said. “I’m a foodie myself.”
Harris’s father was a butcher, and she remembers helping her grandparents tend their garden as a child. Harris said she now tends to her own cottage garden, where she grows hyacinth bean vine, cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes, nasturtiums, and a variety of herbs. “I was raised to understand where food came from,” she said.
Harris would visit relatives in eastern Texas as a child, many of whom were farmers. "There always seemed to be a new calf and litter of kittens in the barn when we visited. They all had a small chicken coop for personal use - the original free-range chicken - and my great-aunts and cousins would show me where the eggs were. As a city kid, this fascinated me," Harris said.
Harris, who has been visiting Delaware beaches since the 1970s, said she noticed produce stands in the area were dwindling and less diversified. If a stand had a good selection of produce, she said, most of what was on sale was not grown locally. “I just thought there wasn’t enough local food available in Lewes,” she said.
Harris said she purchased a house in Lewes nine years ago, and she quickly noticed Lewes was filled with people who were interested in quality, local food. “I thought, ‘Gee, It’d be great to have a farmer’s market in Lewes,’” she said.
Harris set out to use her knowledge of business and love of food to make the market a reality. She said she and a handful of Lewes residents began planting and preparing for the market in 2005. The group later developed into a board of directors.
Harris said she based the market’s business plan on Dupont Circle FreshFarm Market in Washington, D.C., where she lives full time.
Harris registered the business as a nonprofit in late 2005, and the market opened its doors the summer of 2006 with nine vendors. “I remember we sold out of everything by 9:30 a.m.,” Harris said.
Historic Lewes Farmers Market has been expanding ever since, and is now host to 37 vendors – the maximum capacity for the market. “It’s actually fueling all these small farms and giving people a chance to make a living of it,” Harris said.
Harris said the market’s success has also made it possible for farmers to grow more diverse crops in the shoulder season, such as lettuce, which blooms in May. “That’s really, really changed,” she said. "I love the early and late seaons when all the varieties of lettuces and arugula are widely available."
Harris's favorite time at the market, she said, is mid-summer in the early morning when the smell of basil fills the air.
Harris said she depends on a host of volunteers to keep Historic Lewes Farmers Market running. Over 200 volunteers participate in the market every week, not including a youth core of about 20 kids who donated their time, and the volunteer base continues to grow, Harris said.
Even her partner, an art director in Washington, D.C., donates time to help with advertising. “The market runs so smoothly, it’s hard to see how much work goes into it,” Harris said.
The market carries many organic products and prepared food is limited. “We really are a produce market,” Harris said. Besides fruit and vegetables, the market retails organic chicken, grass-fed beef and lamb, fresh fish, milk and artisan cheeses.
“We welcome all types of farmers into our market,” Harris said. She said not all vendors are certified organic, but even the more conventional farmers are concerned with the effects of pesticides on their crops.
Historic Lewes Farmers Market is also famous for its live demonstrations from local farmers, chefs and even beekeepers. Harris said she also tries to make the market a place kids want to visit. “There’s always something for kids to attend,” she said. “I like to see kids involved.”
With childhood obesity on the rise, people throughout the nation are becoming more concerned with what their children are eating, Harris said. She said she hopes Historic Lewes Farmers Market will help give area children a better understanding of food, like she did as a child.
In an effort to further help educate local children, the market donated money to Shields Elementary and Sussex Consortium in Lewes to fund organic gardens.
The board of directors also raises money to send local farmers to the annual Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Farming for the Future Conference. Harris said this year the market offered $3,300 in scholarships for PASA.
Similarly, the board started the area’s first small farmers workshop in February, which educates local farmers about marketing and food safety.
America’s Farmland Trust awarded Historic Lewes Farmers Market the nation’s second best market for its size in 2010. “This year, I think we’ll be No. 1,” Harris said.
But for Harris, and many others, it is more than fresh food that keeps them coming back. “It’s sort of a happy place,” she said. “It’s a community gathering every week.” Harris said she has met a huge number of people through the market who she never would have known otherwise, and she is glad to see familiar faces every weekend.
“We are all about the humanity and community building,” Harris said. “The market is so much more than a tomato stand.”
Historic Lewes Farmers Market is open until noon every Saturday until Saturday, Oct. 29, at 110 Shipcarpenter St. For more information, visit historiclewesfarmersmarket.org.