Bethany Beach Farmer’s Market

The Bethany Beach Farmers' Market normally opens in early June, but unlike this day in 2018, the market will have to wait to open, as Gov. John Carney has not approved the opening of such markets during the COVID-19 state-of-emergency. Bennett Orchards is among the farms urging the governor to label them as essential businesses.

When food remains one of the basic essentials to survival, some people are chafing that farmers’ markets are not officially deemed “essential” enough to open during Delaware’s State of Emergency.

“Currently, the farmers’ markets in Delaware are not able to operate until the Governor’s State of Emergency is lifted, or the public health threat of COVID-19 is eliminated,” stated the Department of Agriculture. “We know that people are anxious to open the farmers’ markets, as they are a valued part of your communities where Delawareans can access fresh fruits, vegetables and other value-added products to feed their families.”

That feels all wrong to Henry Bennett of Bennett Orchards in Frankford.

“In a time of crisis where we are seeing massive food shortages from supply-chain gaps in corporate agriculture, local farms matter more than ever,” said Bennett, a board member and vendor at several local farmers’ markets. “We need to get the message across to our governor and Secretary of Agriculture that farmers’ markets matter now more than ever, and hope that they will deem us essential, just as every other state across the country has done during this pandemic.”

The governor’s office has not offered a specific reason why farmers’ markets cannot operate yet, and they did not comment before Coastal Point deadline on Wednesday afternoon.

“As conditions start to improve and the graphs start going in the right direction, we will revisit easing restrictions on community farmers’ markets,” stated an email to the markets from Jordan Seemans, Carney’s director of legislative affairs.

In a normal year, the weekly markets at Lewes and Rehoboth would have opened by now, with Bethany Beach, Sea Colony and Fenwick Island markets following in June.

Farmers’ markets present are a unique situation. Although they usually promote congregating of people, they provide food necessities, like a grocery store.

“Agriculture and food production are essential industries that provide food and fiber for all and play a critical role in the state’s economy,” Department of Agriculture officials said in March.

But that essential role doesn’t yet carry over into open-air markets.

Delaware’s coastal market managers have been working together to offer ideas to the department. They proposed guidelines for markets statewide: (1) People order online with a drive-through pickup, or (2) Foot traffic moves in one direction, in a circuit, with masks, social distancing and all other CDC safety guidelines being observed.

“We have sent them to the Department of Agriculture, but we haven’t really received any feedback. And then last night they just announced that farmers’ markets aren’t essential, so we feel that the plans haven’t even been properly reviewed,” Bennett said.

“What we’re proposing is much safer than a grocery store. First of all, it’s outdoors. Second, you’re getting things direct from the farmer, and they’re not going through supply chains and being touch by numerous hands,” Bennett said.

That’s why it’s tough for Delaware farmers and farmers’ market shoppers to see Marylanders visiting their local markets this month in Ocean City, Ocean Pines and Berlin. According to Bennett, markets are open across the United States, from New York City to Hollywood.

“We can sell at farmers’ markets 20 minutes away at Ocean City and Berlin, but we can’t sell here in Delaware,” Bennett said.

That leaves farmers, consumers and market managers feeling like the State “does not value the role that farmers’ markets play in safely supplying healthy food to communities in need,” Bennett said.

Ultimately, it’s the State’s decision, but they haven’t offered a satisfactory explanation, Bennett said. He hopes the debate will continue.

The public can share opinions and ideas for Delaware’s economic recovery plans online at https://governor.delaware.gov/delawares-recovery.

While the farmers’ markets remain closed, farms are instead being encouraged to continue selling at their own on-site farm stands, and the Department of Agriculture will help them advertise with listings in the DDA Farm Stands Guide (https://agriculture.delaware.gov/communications-marketing/farmstands-guide) and the Delaware Grown website (https://delawaregrown.com).

Farms should email Kathy.Jackson@delaware.gov with the farm name, physical pick-up location, hours for pick-up, all relevant contact information/websites and a list of products available.

There are some producers who don’t have a home stand, or they only sell products at farmers’ markets, Bennett said.

“There’s a lot of decisions to make. Do you keep farming? Do you keep planting? It seems counterintuitive at a time where were seeing massive food-supply shortages,” Bennett said. “In a crisis, it’s a local food supply that feeds the nation and Delmarva.”

As their typical supply chains further change, farmers have to decide whether it’s worth the time to harvest crops.

Starting Friday morning, May 8, many other businesses can operate again, under strict rules: curbside pickup for a variety of general merchandise stores; jewelry stores by appointment only; hair care services with stringent scheduling and sanitation rules, and serving essential workers only; and more.

“The goal of the interim steps is to provide economic relief to Delaware citizens and businesses who are struggling financially — while maintaining strict adherence to health and safety guidelines,” state officials said.

“I understand how hard this has been for Delawareans across our state. We’ve tried to find ways to ease the pain without compromising public health,” said Gov. John Carney. “But even these limited steps … will require strict compliance with safety standards, especially social distancing. We cannot afford to go backwards and see new cases and hospitalizations spike.”

The State of Delaware continues working toward a phased reopening of the state and economy that will meet federal requirements and the governor’s own precautions.

For more information, email DPHCall@delaware.gov and de.gov/coronavirus.

Staff Reporter

Laura Walter is an award-winning reporter on schools, environment, people and history. A graduate of Indian River High School and Washington College, she has rappelled off a building and assisted a magician, and encourages readers to act on local issues.