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Black Swamp Artisanal Market opens in Dover

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After a year of planning, the Black Swamp Artisanal Market opens on 204 W. Loockerman St. The market hopes to serve Dover’s food desert as well as spurring more interest in downtown Dover. | DBT PHOTO BY KATIE TABELING

DOVER — Farm-to-table business has been growing strong in the last decade, and the Black Swamp Artisanal Market aims to grow stronger roots in the First State’s capital city.

Justin and Tara Brant opened the store at 204 W. Loockerman St. earlier this month, selling not only their own pastured pork, chicken and handmade soap, but other wares from farmers and vendors. Each product sold is either grown or made by farmers or craftsmen on the Delmarva Peninsula. Black Swamp Artisanal Market will host a grand opening at noon Sept. 24.

“The way we look at this is that this store doesn’t just belong to us, it’s for the entire farming community in Delaware. We believe there’s enough room for us all to compete and succeed,” Tara Brant told the Delaware Business Times. “Dover has been really awesome and welcoming to us. The community is very open to sustainable farming and exploring options.”

The Brants started farming on Black Swamp Farmstead in Felton in 2019 as a sort of retirement plan. The couple both served in the United States military — Justin currently is stationed in Washington, D.C., with the Navy while Tara is a veteran of the Army and a retired nurse. The couple started breeding pasture heritage pigs and set up a booth at the Capital City Farmer’s Market.

Black Swamp Farmstead owners Justin and Tara Brant have made the jump to farmer’s market to storefront.| DBT PHOTO BY MADDY LAURIA

Around the same time, the Downtown Dover Partnership (DDP) was brainstorming options to fill a storefront after the Bayard Pharmacy closed. For years, the DDP has been working on its “Unlock the Block” initiative to attract more commercial spaces on Loockerman and nearby streets through incentives and other support. Partners include NCALL/Restoring Central Dover, Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, City of Dover, the Delaware Division of Small Business, True Access Capital, and the Small Business Development Center.

In 2020, two businesses closed, and one opened, but downtown has a vacancy rate of 40% to 50%. But the Unlock the Block committee for 204 W. Loockerman St. hoped to land another tenant, specifically an artisan market, as a one-stop shop for food, and after watching the Brant’s success at the farmer’s market, they knew who might be interested.

“Artisan markets have proven to be a strong business model around the nation and attract a diverse group of shoppers,” DDP Executive Director Diane Laird told DBT. “Many are looking for healthy food options, and we believe this location would be ideal. We were especially fortunate to host Justin and Tara at the Capital City Farmer Market, and they were excited about this idea.”

Farmers produced and sold $8.7 billion of food commodities to consumers, retailers and local food intermediaries in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While that is the most recent data available, past data shows that local food sales doubled in the last five years. The first time the USDA surveyed farmers on local sales, in 2008, marketing local foods grossed $4.8 billion. Delaware has a strong agriculture industry, and many farm stands and markets, but few venues in central Delaware.

The Unlock the Block Committee and the Brants worked through the lease negotiations with Milford Housing Inc. as well as architectural plans and recruiting vendors. The Brants did have to take out a loan to move forward with the project, and renovations moved slower than expected.

“It’s scary, but when the pandemic hit there were a lot of possibilities that opened up for farms as well,” Tara Brant said. “People really started to realize that farms were a major cog in the food system at that point. When there were some shortages, people started to think that they needed a Plan B and they started to turn to locally sourced options.”

Some pockets of Kent County, specifically downtown Dover, are categorized as “food deserts,” or areas where low-income families have limited access to supermarkets. According to the federal Food Access Research Atlas, Dover west of U.S. Route 113 and south of South Church Road “has a relatively high number of households (combined 730 out of 5,910, or 12%) without vehicles that are more than one-half mile from a supermarket.”

Tara Brant lived in northern California for a while, and in comparison, Dover is in a unique position of being a city in a rural setting.

“It’s not as dense as California can be. If I wanted to get pasture-raised beef, it would be triple the cost and I would have to drive far from San Francisco to find it,” she said. “Dover really has the benefit of being surrounded by farms that grow not only soy and corn, but other farmers that are growing and raising things within 20 minutes.”

Looking to the future, the Brants hope to open the Black Swamp Artisanal Market space for even more farmers and vendors to give the agriculture community a platform for success. In addition to demonstrations and classes, Tara Brandt thinks it might be a great pick-up location for many Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where farmers provide customers a weekly box of fresh vegetables straight from the farm.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article had misspelled Justin and Tara Brant’s last name. We regret the error.

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