Considered nonessential by state officials, local farmers markets say their fate is up in the air. By now, most markets in the area would have already opened for the spring season.
Henry Bennett, of Bennett Orchards near Frankford, said a group of farmers and market organizers presented a plan to state officials for operating markets in a safe manner that adheres to CDC guidelines issued to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. “Flat out, they said no and that farmers markets are considered nonessential events,” he said.
Bennett said farmers markets have evolved into an important way for small farmers to make a living. “Some rely solely on direct-to-consumer sales at markets,” Bennett said.
“The state is basically closing down farmers markets this year,” said Pat Coluzzi, founder and manager of the Rehoboth Beach Farmers Market for the past 15 years. “We are getting no support at all. It's going to really hurt small farmers, and some may not survive this.”
The Rehoboth market was scheduled to open May 5. “Every state around us has open farmers markets. We can control social distancing much better than grocery stores,” Coluzzi said.
“It shows a disconnect between the secretary of agriculture and small, local farmers,” Bennett said. “It's easier to say no. Our extremely workable plan has fallen on deaf ears. We are wasting time dealing with the state and Department of Agriculture. We've started a grassroots campaign and are reaching out to local politicians.”
Coluzzi is also urging people to write to newspapers and legislators.
Bennett said within a half-hour’s distance from his farm, the Ocean City and Berlin markets in Maryland are open.
“People can do walk-through farmers markets in New York City and Hollywood, and we can't do it in Bethany Beach or Lewes?” Bennett asked. “It makes no sense.”
Bennett Orchards offers you-pick at the farm and features blueberries and peaches at area farmers markets.
Coluzzi, who developed a plan with fewer, well-spaced vendors that was approved by city officials, said the Department of Agriculture should protect the state's farmers. “I'm befuddled by this lack of understanding,” she said.
Bennett said agriculture is the state's No. 1 industry. “It's not just poultry, which is where officials are putting all of their efforts,” he said.
Bennett said very few hands – usually only one person – touch local farm products before they are taken to farmers markets. “We don't use processing plants. This is the safest food you can get,” he said.
Coluzzi said officials suggested people be directed to local farms and buy directly from farmers. “Most won't do this, and there are no rules for farm stands. It makes no sense,” she said.
“We need some answers now because farmers won't plant if they don't have an outlet. Talk about a shortage. Local produce will dry up here,” Coluzzi said.
The Historic Lewes Farmers Market, which would have opened the first Saturday in May, offered the following on its website: “In Delaware, farmers markets are not considered essential services and therefore have been ordered closed until at least May 15.”
Time to plant is now
Craig and Lenore Brady, of Stag Run Farm near Georgetown, said no start date for local farmers markets is the worst-case scenario for small farmers. “Do we plant now for the summer?” Lenore asked. “We need direct-to-consumer sales that the markets provide. If we and other farmers don't plant now, fresh produce will be very lean in the area,” she said.
They have already felt the impact of not opening local markets. The Bradys decided not to pick their asparagus crop this spring, which yielded 4,000 pounds last year.
Craig said their business plan is 70 percent retail – 60 percent at farmers markets – and 30 percent wholesale. All of their sales to restaurants have ceased.
Lenore is co-manager of Ocean Pines Farmers and Artisans Market, which is open all year and has not closed due to restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic. “In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan instructed farmers markets to open,” she said.
“It's ironic that people from Delaware drive to the market,” Craig said.
Craig said if a decision is not made soon to open the markets, small farmers will face serious financial hardships.
Lenore said they have 650 tomato plants ready to plant, and they also plant potatoes, zucchini, lima beans, peas, watermelon and cantaloupes.
In addition, the farm has orchards that produced 16 tons of apples last year, as well as pears and cherries. Craig said they will likely thin their trees and reduce production by a third. In addition, because of high demand, they may start to sell vegetable plants from their greenhouse.
He said it's possible they may not plant any watermelons or cantaloupes.
Craig said their farm sold 16 tons of fruit and 8 tons of produce last year. “That fed a lot of people, and if we cut that by a third or in half, there could be shortages and higher prices,” he said.
Department of Agriculture responds
The Delaware Department of Agriculture issued the following statement May 7:
“The decision made to delay the opening of seasonal farmers markets in communities throughout Delaware was not an easy one. We know that Delaware family farms depend on the direct sales to consumers at farmers markets. Just like you, we want to re-open the markets, but operating changes have to be made to protect the health of our farming community, consumers and market staff.
“The Delaware Department of Agriculture has asked the farmers market managers throughout the state to develop a plan to safely reopen. DDA will review the plan submitted by the Delaware Farmers Market Coalition, and will make revisions based on the guidance provided by Division of Public Health, to ensure that farmers markets address all safety protocols for COVID-19 before they are allowed to reopen.
“We appreciate your understanding and are hopeful that conditions will improve to the point where it is safe for the reopening of farmers markets in Delaware.”