Farmers' market proposal welcomed in Bethany

Delaware Department of Agriculture officials are eager to continue expansion of the state’s farmers’ markets, and they want to make Bethany Beach one of the latest sites to bring farmers and consumers together over fresh fruits and vegetables. But the biggest question for the town may be where it would put such a market.

Notoriously short on parking in general during the summer and lacking any free parking at all on the busy east side of town during that time, the vision of beach-goers stopping by farm stalls to pick up melons, corn and tomatoes before walking to their rented cottages may be more illusory than any of those voicing support for the idea at the Jan. 19 Bethany Beach Town Council meeting would like.

What seems like a win-win situation for the town, its citizens and area farmers could be blocked one of the fundamental concerns DDA Marketing Communications Officer Kelli Steele named in the process of getting the new markets started: a suitable place for market patrons to park free of charge.

Additionally, Steele said she didn’t consider asphalt a suitable surface for the farmers to be located on during a three- to four-hour market day, with summer sun and heat beating down on them and hard pavement underfoot.

“I’m asking your help in finding a location for a farmers’ market,” Steele told the assembled council members and citizens in opening her presentation last Friday.

The ideal location, she said, would have space for eight or more vendors and their trucks (likely 10 to 12 feet per vendor), free parking for their customers and a suitable grassy or dirt surface that was produce and people-friendly.

“Downtown Bethany is not a feasible location due to the parking concerns,” Steele said straight out, though some in the town had clearly hoped a farmers’ market would serve to contribute to the town-center atmosphere officials have been trying to cultivate there, as well as being a convenience for residents and visitors alike.

Steele also rejected the notion of placing the new farmers’ market at the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce north of Fenwick Island, largely on the basis of the asphalt parking lot surface. She noted that Chamber Executive Director Karen McGrath had been open to the idea, provided vendors at the market became Chamber members if they weren’t already.

DDA seeks location ideas

With those two ideas crossed off the list of possible locations as quickly as they were mentioned, Steele said she was appealing to the Bethany Beach Town Council, Bethany Beach Landowners Association and the community at large to help her find what would be an ideal location for the market.

The notion itself was greeted warmly by all who spoke on Jan. 19. “The idea has potential,” Council Member Tracy Mulligan commented.

BBLA President John Himmelberg voiced his own rousing support at the outset, saying he encouraged Steele and the others involved in the effort to start the local market to get it going in time for the 2007 summer season.

Himmelberg noted his own past work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for which he is still a consultant, and praised the value of fresh fruits and vegetables – but even more so of the venue of the farmers’ market. “They get to meet the people who grow our food,” he said, commenting on a pervasive and growing disconnect between food-producers and consumers.

He also noted proposals to formally close the previous exemption the town had that has for decades allowed farmers in pickup trucks to drive through the town selling melons, corn and tomatoes, calling their customers to the street for fresh produce with an insistent bell. The farmers’ market could be an official venue for that kind of sale even while the town tamps down on the sales from public thoroughfares.

Himmelberg also recommended the idea as a way to bring people into the town and help keep its commercial areas viable, but he did acknowledge there were problems. He offered the BBLA’s help in trying to overcome those hurdles.

Market manager also sought as planning begins

In addition to the need for a suitable location, Steele said the next thing she needed to get the project going was someone willing to manage the market. The existing markets in the state generally are organized as non-profit groups, she explained, with a formal management structure that has helped to make them very successful.

The six original farmers’ markets were located in downtown Wilmington, at the Smyrna rest area, in Milford, in the Little Italy area of Wilmington, in Delaware City and in Lewes at the Cape May-Lewes ferry terminal.

Steele said she’d been forced to close that original Lewes location during the 2006 season, due to management problems related to vendors arriving after the market was to have been open to customers. There are no plans to reopen it, she said.

But while that one failure was notable, the success stories for the program are far more numerous. In the same year, a farmer’s market was opened on Market Street in Georgetown (to be in a new location for 2007). Most of the ferry-terminal vendors relocated under new management to the Lewes Historical Society grounds. A third Wilmington market opened in Trolley Square. And a new Hockessin market capped the year.

Now, a new market is already set to open in 2007 in Rehoboth Beach. “And I’d like Bethany Beach to be No. 11,” Steele said with optimism.

Reporting the success of the markets thus far, she said, “Farmers are businesspeople.” Those businesspeople did well at the markets in 2006, with fruit and vegetable sales alone from just five of the markets bringing in some $117,523. With seven of nine markets reporting their figures, the total profits there came in at $291,893, she said.

Farmers’ interest piqued

It promises to be a potentially highly lucrative option for local growers as pressures of development value for their lands continue to increase. The presentation garnered enough interest this week to bring out representatives of both Bennett Orchards, who had recommended a Bethany market to the DDA, and the Johnson family, who have recently expanded their many-generations-old family farm business with their own market store on Route 20.

Steele said most of the farmers markets, including those in Lewes and Rehoboth, had been sparked by local businesswomen coming together with the idea of increasing access to healthy foods for local families. The Rehoboth women joined with a city council member to help form the non-profit there. They then found a location and set up the regulations and hours for the market, and finally got the town councils’ blessings.

While the Lewes Historical Society location initially faced opposition from the town council and the historical society, Steele acknowledged, the market is now being welcomed with open arms as a major benefit for the area.

Steele emphasized that the DDA is not in the business of running the markets. Whether done through a non-profit group organized specifically for the task or merely run by a manager who oversees the individual vendors, the markets are all run independently.

DDA’s involvement, Steele and DDA Director of Marketing Orlando Camp said, exists to help promote the markets through their advertising expertise and to enhance their success through recommendations such as a diversification of produce from watermelons, cantaloupes and sweet corn to a wider variety of fruits and vegetables and other goods.

The only limitation on those products is that they must be grown locally and sold by those who produce them. Steele said she’d had to reject the claim of a New Jersey vendor selling at the Cape May-Lewes location that bananas could be grown in either state.

Camp said the DDA was in the process of establishing regulations that would help guarantee the markets were open the full 10 weeks of the market season, with goals and procedures that would help them succeed. “We want to ensure this market is a professionally-run market,” he emphasized.

But he also emphasized that the markets are intended to be community markets, not state- or federally-run entities. They are producer-owned businesses, he said.

Volunteers already coming forward to organize

That aspect laid out, the DDA officials had promises of assistance from both the Bennett family and Himmelberg as an individual, seeking to get the concept up and running in Bethany as soon as this summer.

Along with the basic organization of the market, and its location, details such as market hours will have to be determined.

Council Member Steve Wode expressed concern as to Camp’s initial suggest of Wednesday or Thursday as a Bethany market day, noting both days are near the end of the town’s traditional summer rental week. Camp said the idea had been to coordinate with Rehoboth’s Saturday market days to allow vendors to participate in several market locations. So, that issue will have to be worked out.

Camp promised DDA assistance from this concept stage through the operation phase and beyond.

Also appearing with the DDA officials on Jan. 19 was University of Delaware Professor Ed Kee, who has 29 years of experience as a vegetable specialist.

As a regular summer visitor to Bethany Beach, Kee downplayed the concerns over the details of a potential location, saying, “I think there are a lot of good locations in Bethany.” Keith also noted the benefit to both farmers and their community of this kind of effort. “This is a positive for farmers in Sussex County and for the town,” he said.

Mayor Carol Olmstead opened the presentation by noting the council planned to take no action on the idea of a farmers’ market at that evening’s meeting. Instead, she said it could be considered as soon as the council’s regular meeting in February.

The council’s thumbs-up on the idea would be a step forward in the process laid out by the DDA, possibly keeping it on track for a summer of 2007 opening with fresh, local fruits and vegetables freely available for purchase in the town.