Farmers markets essential for farmers, consumers
Delaware’s No. 1 industry is agriculture and a quarter of Delaware farmland has been permanently preserved, so agriculture will continue to be the backbone of the state’s economy. That’s how Gov. John Carney spoke back in January, emphasizing the importance of farmers markets and touting last year’s sales record of more than $3.2 million.
Fast forward to May. Suddenly these thriving markets are events – not essential businesses – under the COVID-19 state of emergency.
Delaware’s farmers markets are suspended until further notice, the Agriculture Department says, even though farmers markets in nearby Ocean City and Berlin, Md., are open, with COVID-19 restrictions in place.
Operating any market during this pandemic requires restrictions to protect both the public and the farmers. Our farmers know this. Farmers and market organizers already presented a plan to state officials for safely operating markets while adhering to CDC guidelines – all to no avail.
“Flat out, they said no, and that farmers markets are considered nonessential events,” said a frustrated Henry Bennett of Bennett Orchards near Frankford.
Rehoboth Beach Farmers Market organizer Pat Coluzzi’s COVID-19 plan calls for fewer vendors, suspending events, and controlling social distancing. “We can control social distancing much better than grocery stores,” she said.
Isn’t that obvious? It’s simply inconceivable that grocery stores, where dozens of employees handle produce, stock shelves and work checkout counters, are somehow safe, but farmers markets, where customers purchase farm-fresh food from the very people who produce it, are not.
Ag Department officials should also understand better than anyone the economic threat – to farmers and to the food supply – that comes with closing down these markets.
“Farmers won’t plant if they don’t have an outlet,” Coluzzi said. “Talk about a shortage. Local produce will dry up.”
That will send prices up. For everyone.
Instead of standing in the way, the Ag Department should promote farmers markets by offering crowd-control equipment and masks, and by facilitating hands-free purchasing, curbside pickup and other ways to keep our markets safe.
Just as we go to press, the Ag Department has announced farmers markets will reopen starting May 15.
Though it was slow in coming, we applaud that decision.