Farmers markets feel plowed under by nonessential label

Like many area farmers, Craig Brady, owner of Stag Run Farm, finds his planting plans in limbo because of the closure of farmers’ markets for the summer. (Submitted photo/Lenore Brady)

SUSSEX COUNTY — Asparagus at Stag Run Farm west of Georgetown has sprung to harvest stage.

But Stag Run Farm co-owner Lenore Brady won’t be taking it to market.

“I’m not harvesting it. I have nowhere to sell it,” said Ms. Brady. “I’m just letting it go. It’s called ‘going to fern.’”

While farmers’ markets in neighboring states and others across the nation are open and operating under social distancing protocols, the open-air farmers’ markets with multiple vendors in Delaware are deemed non-essential. They are not allowed to operate under Gov. John Carney’s state of emergency declarations.

“And you know that grocery stores, food banks, food pantries have all been considered essential services during COVID-19,” said Helaine Harris, president of the Historic Lewes Farmers Market. “In fact, farmers’ markets are the only type of food outlet that was called out specifically for complete closure. Even restaurants are open for takeout delivery.”

Stacey Hofmann, Delaware Department of Agriculture’s chief of community relations explained the state’s rationale this week.

“Farmers markets in Delaware are currently not able to open until the state of emergency is lifted because we are trying to prevent large gatherings of people,” she said. “In a grocery store setting, customers shop in a singular and transitory experience: individuals enter the store at various times to purchase various items; they move around the store individually — subject to strict social-distancing guidelines set out by state and federal health authorities — and they leave when they have achieved their purpose.”

“Farmers’ markets in contrast, is by design a communal experience, one for which a large group of individuals come together at the same time in the same place for the same purpose.”

Lenore Brady of Stag Run Farm near Georgetown shows some of the early-season produce offerings available at a past local farmers’ market. (Delaware State News/Glenn Rolfe)

That ruling has frustrated many organizers of the longtime weekly markets Downstate, their growers and vendors.

“There are farmers’ markets all over this country that we have been talking to that have changed the way that they set up their market. They understand,” said Ms. Harris. “There are certain protocols that the states have put into place. We’ve always been essential for delivering food to local folk. But what we know we have to do different is get rid of the social venue part of it. But everybody understands that.”

Ms. Brady said Thursday the new concept for markets must be: “Come, Shop and Leave.” And she’s confident customers will accept that reality given the the COVID-19 pandemic.

Concern is growing over the potential impact an extended or seasonal market closure might have on the local food supply and the small farm community, part of Delaware’s No. 1 industry — agriculture.

“This governor believes that a farmers market is not an essential business. He’s wrong,” Ms. Brady said. “And people should be very upset over it, because we will not see local produce in the state of Delaware if he doesn’t open those farmers’ markets. That is my direct way to the consumer of keeping this farm alive. Those farmers’ markets are a lifeline to this farm. And every other state is open — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Maryland.”

Henry Bennett of Bennett Orchards in Frankford, echoed those concerns, noting that “as farmers, you only grow what you sell.”

“As a farmer we are fighting frost, flooding, labor shortages, and now our state government is just saying, ‘Sorry, you don’t have a place to sell your product.’ A lot of farmers are being faced with difficult decisions. Do we keep spending money on these crops if there is uncertainty about how to harvest them?”

He took issue with a May 5 correspondence from the governor’s office that encouraged farmers and producers who participate in markets and seeking to sell their products “to add or update their listing for the DDA Farm Stands Guide and the Delaware Grown website to help facilitate connections with the consumer.”

“They said, ‘Well, have people come to your farm.’ But that is contrary to the stay-at-home order,” Mr. Bennett said. “Do they want somebody from Lewes to get in their car, leave their community and come to our farm and drive all the way back to Lewes. Wouldn’t it be safer for us to bring a truckload of peaches up there and safely distribute them? It’s hard to deal with disconnect.”

Ms. Harris said she didn’t see that as a valid option.

“They are farming,” she said. “They are not set up to have a lot of labor on those farms to set up a food stall at this point. Plus, I don’t know what the regulations are.”

Ms. Hofmann said the Department of Agriculture is working with agricultural producers who typically sell at farmers’ markets to list their information online at de.gov/buylocal and delawaregrown.com.

“This will allow valued farmers market consumers to shop with their favorite family farms either at their farm stand or on-farm,” she said. “Many of the farms have set up curbside pickup and others are doing delivery.”

Efforts have been made from the farmers’ market and small farm community to facilitate an acceptable option to allow open-air markets to open.

“We’ve sent them a lot of things that it just kind of falls on deaf ears,” said Mr. Bennett. “Our requests really haven’t been taken into consideration. It just kind of feels like they are forgetting about small, sustainable direct-to-the-consumer farmers, and worried about big agri-business at this time. I know a lot is going on in the state right now. But we don’t understand why Delaware is the only state that is not allowing farmers markets in the U.S.”

Mr. Bennett cited markets in Hollywood, California, as well as Detroit, Michigan, and New York City.

“Densely populated places that were hit extremely hard by this pandemic and they’re still going ahead — with restriction,” said Mr. Bennett. “Obviously, they are not going to operate the same as they did before, and I don’t think anything will after this pandemic.”

Ms. Harris said, “All farmers’ markets managers understand that we have to totally do these markets differently. All perimeters have to be enclosed. You have to have one direction through the market. You can only allow so many people at the market at a time … still with six-foot spacing. Those are all manageable and markets all over the United States today are running markets. In New York City, they have never closed their farmers’ markets.”

Ms. Brady is the assistant manager for the Ocean Pines Farmers Market just across the line in Maryland. “And we are very busy, and we are doing everything right. They are keeping social distance. They know what they are doing,” she said.

Delaware’s Department of Agriculture’s Buy Local Delaware: Farmers’ Market Guide lists 17 markets, including eight in Sussex County. All are currently closed.

The Historic Lewes Farmers Market, which was to open May 2, submitted two potential plans to the state for operating within the COVID-19 conditions. “And the response back was you have to write the right plans that every market will agree to,” said Ms. Harris.

Instead, Ms. Harris said over the past two weeks she has been contacting every farmers’ market manager in the state “to try to put something together.”

“It is going to be that very soon, if it is not true now, that Delaware is going to be the only state that has not allowed its farmers’ markets to open with COVID-19 protocols in place. That is just crazy to me,” Ms. Harris said. “And it’s very alarming because, farmers markets really do protect our local food supply chain. We’ve seen the breakdown in the food supply; milk (being dumped), crops are being plowed under. We provide an outlet for local farmers to get essential local good food, safe food to our local community. And we do that very well.”

As farmers like Ms. Brady and husband Craig Brady face huge decisions regarding crop planting and their future, some small business owners are seeing a light at the end of the tunnel. Today many small businesses that had been deemed non-essential in March will re-open under various guidelines depending on their industry.

“Farmers are looking at what they are going to plant right now for the summer and fall. This is our season,” said Ms. Brady. “My fields are ready. I have 650 tomato plants to go in. Last year I did 16 tons of apples and pears off this orchard. Right now, we are deciding whether we are just going to let everything go and not pick anything. We are not going to watch our fruit or our vegetables rot on the vine because we have no way of selling it. It’s a huge problem.”

“Supermarkets don’t buy from farmers like Henry Bennett or me. They buy from the big guys, or they bring apples in from China. They are not buying from me,” Ms. Brady said. “The government can’t come back to us in July and say, ‘Oh, we need fresh produce. You guys need to produce it more.’ We can’t do that. This is when you put everything in. The problem with the governor and the Department of Ag — which is just blowing my mind — is the fact that they are not recognizing the fact that we are an essential business.”

“What about the people that are on SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program)? What about the people that depend on their local farmers’ market for their fresh vegetables? He is totally disregarding this.”

Mr. Bennett said he believes that farm-to-farmers-market produce is much safer than the grocery store.

“We pick, and our peaches are taken right to the market. They are not going through a processing facility or anything like that. It gets touched by one person. It is much safer than what you are seeing,” said Mr. Bennett. “Our supply chain is two links. It’s going right to the consumer.”

Ms. Harris agreed.

“Farmers markets have always provided I think a safe environment for the sale of food. We’re outdoor. There’s a lot of space and ventilation. It reduces the likelihood of airborne transmission of disease if you are careful in how your restrictions are set up. And it’s easier to spread out,” said Ms. Harris. “Frankly, I think that our farmers’ market is a lot safer. The way we are going to set up these markets, the customer is not going to touch anything. The vendor is going to touch the produce. The customer will have to ask the farmer to bag it for them. Then, at home wash it.”

Ms. Harris worried about the impact an extended closure would have on farmers, the markets where they sell and the overall food supply chain.

“The impact of it is that a whole structure of distribution that we, the farmers’ markets, have built with small farmers over the past 15 years, that is going to go away. Farmers’ markets can’t last if we don’t have farmers coming into our markets. There are not a lot of outlets for local, fresh produce. It’s going to take a lot of small farms down with it at the same time,” she said.

“Farmers, they are having to make decisions right now whether they are going to plant because they do succession planting and they are planting crops that you won’t see until July and August. And I have talked to a number of them and they are really doubtful they should plant,” she said. “I don’t know what is going to happen when we get to July and August. It’s not just local produce. We have vendors — beef, lamb, chicken pork and eggs. I have heard farmers saying, ‘I was going buy ‘x’ amount of laying hens; I am not buying them now because I don’t know if the farmers’ markets are opening.’”

Last year, the Historic Lewes Farmers Market had nearly $900,000 in sales. That money stays mainly within the community, Ms. Harris said.

“It is huge economic impact. The regular person needs to think about that,” said Ms. Harris. “Small farms aren’t like Amazon, where they can just buy it from somebody else and then they are going to deliver it your front door. Those people go out in the fields. They are working everyday — with their hands.”

Mr. Bennett emphasized the significance of farming in Sussex, where he said agriculture sales gross a billion dollars a year. “Sussex County, as far as counties go, is the 29th highest grossing county in the country for agriculture, overall.”

Ms. Harris says she is dumbfounded by the decision from the governor and Department of Agriculture.

“I want to know why farmers’ markets are being singled out for different treatment than grocery stores or food banks? Why is Delaware not supporting local farmers and protecting the local food system?” said Ms. Harris. “We have been rather silent because we kept on waiting for them to be open. I have to tell you; I am very dismayed sitting here today. I have known many of these farmers for a very long time. We are a very close-knit group, about 30 to 35 farmers at our market. It is just unbelievable that the state won’t help us open safe markets. I just don’t get it.”

Ms. Brady voiced a simple call to action: “Something needs to be done. People need to stand up and say, ‘We want it open!’”


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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