Delaware farmers’ markets ready to embrace new normal
Forget the one-way lines and hurried shopping: First State farmer’s markets in all three counties are ready to welcome people back for the first restriction-free season since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020.
“When they open, there will be plenty of stuff to buy,” said Kathy Jackson with the Delaware Department of Agriculture. Jackson said that after a fairly good year for sales in 2021, and a lack of pandemic-related restrictions, she expects this year to be even better.
For some local farmers — especially those just starting out — these markets account for a large portion of their annual income. So when the pandemic forced markets to close, and then resulted in challenging restrictions, some family businesses like Felton-based Dittmar Family Farms were hard hit.
“It’s a bittersweet thing,” said Zach Dittmar of the local family farm’s reliance on sales at the Historic Lewes Farmers Market. “It’s awesome that it’s a big chunk of money, but COVID was a perfect example — if the state says no to farmers’ markets, that’s 40-50% of our income.”
Farmers like Dittmar were forced to pivot and find alternative markets for their goods, such as through direct sales to local restaurants or CSA subscriptions when markets closed. Others have turned to residential delivery services and online ordering.
While the CSA option didn’t end up being as profitable as hoped, the first-generation farmers said that after seven years in business, they’re finding their niche. And they’re excited to mostly go back to normal this growing season.
“Things have actually gotten a lot better,” Zach Dittmar said, thanking market organizers for keeping things going. “The only restriction really this year with farmers’ markets is getting into one. There’s enough folks out there that there’s a waitlist.”
In New Castle and Sussex counties, a handful of markets — including the one in Lewes — welcomed people for the first time in early May. Most other markets will not open until closer to Memorial Day or in June. In total, there are 20 markets planned statewide.
Nearly all of last year’s markets are returning in 2022, with the exception of the Capital City Farmers Market in Dover and the market in Smyrna, both of which were in Kent County.
Tina Bradbury with the Downtown Dover Partnership, which operates the Dover-based Capital City Farmers Market market, said she is expecting it to return in future years. But vendors were hard-hit by the height of the pandemic, which made it impossible for businesses featuring food trucks or live music to attend.
She described 2022 as a hiatus for Dover’s market.
“We want to do what’s in the best interest of the vendors and the community,” Bradbury said. “This area is a food desert and we do need to give the community that, so we definitely do not want to ever take it off the table.”
While the outdoor market won’t return this year, there’s a brick-and-mortar market in the Black Swamp Artisanal Market which opened in downtown Dover last fall and features multiple area small businesses including Black Swamp Farmstead. Bradbury said the Downtown Dover Partnership also is exploring opportunities for pop-up markets in other downtown areas.
Still, Delaware farmers’ markets have seen some success despite the challenges of the past two years. The Tidal Farmer’s Market, which popped up during the pandemic and is the only market running in Kent County this year, has been a boon for some newer businesses like Sassafras Farmstead in Georgetown.
Sassafras owners Justin and Kiernan Quay are relatively new to Delaware and farming, and are just getting started with their nearly 50-acre Sussex County property where they raise goats, and chickens, grow produce and are undertaking forestry plans. Justin Quay said the market was a great way to get the word out about their new business.
“Last season, we only had 27 hens and I couldn’t keep eggs in stock,” he said. Demand at the market for their fresh eggs prompted them to more than double their flock. It also accounts for a decent portion of their income, as only about 15% of sales are directly off the farm.
Meanwhile, two new markets are joining the statewide lineup (and making up for the lost Kent County markets): the West Side Grows Farmers’ Market at Cool Spring Park in Wilmington and Western Sussex Farmers’ Market in Seaford.
Last year, 18 markets (three markets did not report sales) accounted for nearly $3.2 million in sales, marking the second-highest total sales since 2007, according to state reports. In 2020, market sales were nearly cut in half due to closures and restrictions
For more information about Delaware markets, including specific locations and hours, go to delawaregrown.com or agriculture.delaware.gov/communications-marketing/farmers-markets-guide.