Dover farmers market goes ‘low-key’ amid COVID-19 restrictions

Patty Hartmannsgruber, right, selects a quart of potatoes that Brett Herzog of Endless Futures Farm has to offer. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

DOVER — The Capital City Farmers Market is still operating at Loockerman Plaza in downtown Dover this summer — just on a much smaller scale in its fifth year due to restrictions the state has put into place during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The market has seen its number of vendors dwindle from around 10 last year to four this season, and it is no longer the big social gathering it used to be for fear of spreading the coronavirus.

There are no longer games for children to play, craft activities, food truck vendors or musicians allowed at Dover’s market, all of which have combined to change its personality considerably.

“We’re trying to survive — definitely trying to,” said Brynn Voshell, the director of the Capital City Farmers Market. “Right now, it’s very slow because the list (the state) gave us is a little confusing, and they kind of want to stick to basics of what farmers markets used to be, no jewelry sales or things like that. As we hopefully move to Phase 3, maybe they’ll let more (vendors) in. We’re still looking for more vendors.”

The farmers market in Dover, which meets every Wednesday from 3-6 p.m. at the Loockerman Way Plaza at 126 W. Loockerman St., currently has four vendors, including 302 Aquaponics, Endless Futures Farm, Derby Mill Farm and newcomer Black Swamp Farmstead.

While 302 Aquaponics and Endless Futures Farm mainly offer a variety of fresh produce, Derby Mill Farm has kitchen window (small) and large fresh-cut flower bouquets, dried flower bouquets, pressed flowers in frames, lavender bunches and cut herbs like cilantro, thyme, basil, lemon grass, sage, bay leaves and more.

Meanwhile, Black Swamp Farmstead from Felton — which came onto the farmers market scene just last week — offers shave soaps for men and women, face, hand and body soaps, shampoo bars, lotions, jams, jellies, ice cream sauces, pickles, whole bean and ground coffee, and farm merchandise, such as canvas farmers market totes and coffee mugs.

Even these options aren’t enough to attract a huge crowd after Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency declaration and collaboration with the Delaware Farmers’ Market Coalition and the state Department of Agriculture brought announcements of strict COVID-19 protocols that allowed farmers markets to safely open in mid-May.

Under current rules, all market attendees must wear a face covering or they will be denied entry; entry is limited to two persons from the same household with limits on overall attendance.

All products for sale must be displayed in a way where they cannot be touched. Vendors will instead package items for purchase at a customer’s request.

Ms. Voshell said the Capital City Farmers Market was particularly hurt by guidelines imposed to eliminate the “social gathering” aspect that had evolved with the market, including no entertainment shows or activities; no food trucks or prepared food for consumption on-site; no on-site food preparation or sampling; no demonstrations; and no pets, except for service animals.

However, the Dover market was able to get some music within earshot of the farmers market on a steamy Wednesday afternoon, as musician Rick Hudson was playing across the street at Tina’s Timeless Threads.

“This is a creative way to have legal entertainment/performance at farmers markets in Delaware,” said Diane Laird, executive director of the Downtown Dover Partnership.

Brett Herzog of Endless Futures Farm in Clayton said the restrictions have made it almost impossible to operate.

“It’s just the restrictions that have been put both on the people handling (the food) and the vendors that have been allowed,” Mr. Herzog said. “I understand the policymakers have some tough decisions, but I really think they dropped the ball not allowing food (truck) vendors and some of the other vendors. It’s just kind of ruined the feel of the farmers market.

“I understand why they did it. They don’t want people gathering, but people can go to McDonald’s and take their food home. Why can’t they come to the markets? Some markets let people shop on the way home from work and pick up produce, and we’re lacking those customers, and it’s a shame.”

The Delaware Department of Agriculture announced earlier this year that Delaware farmers markets hit an all-time high sales record of $3.28 million in 2019.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March, and farmers markets were delayed from opening until May 15.

Secretary of Agriculture Michael T. Scuse said the state had to ensure the safety of customers and vendors alike when he announced the farmers markets’ reopening.

“We want to make sure that opening the farmers markets in Delaware is done in a way that maximizes the safety of market staff, family farmers and the customers who are looking to purchase produce, specialty crops and other value-added food items,” Secretary Scuse said in a statement. “We know a lot more about COVID-19 now and the steps we all need to take to prevent the spread of this disease.

“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.”

Tara Brant of Black Swamp Farmstead said she didn’t notice any difference — because she just got started working at the Dover market last week.

“This is our first farmers market ever,” she said. “We’re actually a new farm. We haven’t found that it’s terribly hard, because this is our first farmers market, so it’s all that we’ve ever known. (Delaware) told us to put all these COVID restrictions in place, and we were like, ‘All right, it’s just another thing.’ ”

Tara Brant, left, owner of Black Swamp Farmstead invites Tackesha Whyte to smell a scented bar of soap. (Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller)

Capital City Farmers Market vendors accept cash, credit, debit, SNAP/EBT, WIC farmers market vouchers and Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program vouchers. Free parking is available for the market from 3-6 p.m. in the lot behind the plaza off North Street and another lot at 120 S. Governors Ave.

The market, which opened June 17, will meet every Wednesday until Sept. 2 and then will add a couple of more dates for the fall season in October.

Ms. Voshell said she hopes people will begin to catch on to the Dover market’s later hours this season.

“We’re open 3 to 6 o’clock, but we can’t have the food vendors, and that destroys the lunch crowd,” said Ms. Voshell. “A lot of people have always said that they wanted a later market, because they can’t get here during work hours, so we’re hoping that just being with produce, that some people will be more likely to come out now that they will be able to do it after work hours.”

This year, the Capital City Farmers Market has a different personality and vibe — and not a popular one.

Everyone involved with the market is hoping things go back to “the old market” as soon as possible.