It is an overcast morning at the beach, but that doesn’t dim Susan Ryan’s mood. “I’m sitting under a 200-year-old willow tree,” says Ryan, co-owner of Good Earth Market in Clarksville. And she is sitting in front of a table groaning under the weight of verdant herbs and ripe vegetables, including aromatic rosemary, heirloom tomatoes and elongated Chinese eggplant.
Ryan is one of more than 30 vendors who are showcasing wares at the Historic Lewes Farmers’ Market, held each Saturday in season, primarily on the Lewes Historical Society’s grounds. Toting baskets and bags, customers stream among the old buildings, giving the event the ambiance of an 18th-century market day.
“There is a great energy here,” Ryan says. “We have loyal customers who come every week.” Gary and Carole Smith, who are watching a chef’s cooking demonstration, are two of those frequent buyers. The couple, who live just outside Lewes, are carrying a basket containing a basil plant, corn on the cob and freshly baked bread. “It’s best to come early,” Gary Smith confides. “Some people run out of stuff.”
The Historic Lewes Farmers’ Market in 2006 started what’s become a string of fresh produce venues along the coast. The Rehoboth Beach Farmers’ Market and the Bethany Beach Farmers’ Market both started in 2007, and the Fenwick Island Farmers’ Market debuted in 2008.
The Lewes market is the largest of the four. This season, Sharon Dardine, secretary for the market and a member of the board of directors, expects 36 vendors and an attendance of 1,800 to 2,000 each Saturday. The other markets are gaining steam. Rehoboth will have 25 vendors this year. Bethany and Fenwick—which this year is moving from Fridays to Mondays—each will have about 15. In Bethany’s case, space in the PNC parking lot at Garfield Parkway and Pennsylvania Avenue limits its capacity.
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Bethany started with just nine vendors. The first day the market opened, the growers were sold out by 9:30 a.m., recalls Carrie Bennett, the market’s founder and owner of Bennett Orchards in Frankford. “The mayor asked me to go out and get more farmers.”
In part, credit the locavore movement for the markets’ popularity. The New Oxford American Dictionary’s 2007 word of the year, locavore refers to people who mainly purchase food items grown within 100 miles of their homes. The foods needn’t be organic.
Both locavores and environmentalists seek to reduce their carbon footprint, the measure of the amount of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere as we go about our daily lives. Because strawberries from South America gobble up energy in shipping and storage, consumers who buy them leave a big print. To don baby booties, buy fruit grown a few miles away.
There are other advantages. “We all know that when you purchase local produce, it just tastes better than something that was picked two weeks ago,” says Ellen Magee, founder of the Fenwick Island Farmers’ Market and owner of Magee Farms near Fenwick.
The markets also support local farmers like Magee, who are facing encroaching development. “We want our local farmers to hold onto their farms,” Dardine says. Pat Coluzzi, founder of the Rehoboth Beach Farmers’ Market and a Rehoboth Beach commissioner, would agree. “They’re growing more vegetables and hopefully making more money,” she says.
Hattie Allen, owner of Hattie’s Garden, a boutique operation just west of Lewes, does not sell wholesale, so the Lewes market allows her to earn money with retail sales. Her produce includes hard-to-find items that don’t ship well, such as Japanese Hakurei turnips, flavorful red Russian kale, and pak choi (also known as bok choy).
Unusual items and a variety of products are secrets to the markets’ success. Coluzzi, who wants the Rehoboth market to be as much of a tourist attraction as its hometown, ensures that there’s an appealing mix, which might include fish, meat, cheese, chicken and eggs, produce, flowers and herbs.
Some items are exclusive to a market. Because Bella’s Cookies in Milton is near downtown Lewes, baker Kelly Leishear can whip up a batch of organic cinnamon buns and whisk them to the market—the only place you can buy them. “When those things get to the market, it’s like Pavlov ringing a bell,” says Kelly’s husband and partner, Mark Leishear. “People line up and salivate over those things.” Bella’s Cookies this year will introduce Key Lime Pie and Smith Island cakes to their cookies and baked good offerings.
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Like Bella’s, many vendors are from coastal neighborhoods. Yet other vendors happily travel to participate. The Fenwick market features ice cream and cheese from Chesapeake Bay Farm near Berlin, Maryland. A grower from Mardela Springs, Maryland, sells blueberries and raspberries in Bethany.
Many vendors participate in two or more markets. Consider Good Earth Market, which sells at the Lewes and Bethany markets, or Bruce Pape of Deep Grass Nursery in Greenwood, who participates in both the Lewes and Rehoboth markets.
“We’ve been going to farmers markets for more than 30 years, and both the Lewes and Rehoboth markets are the best we’ve ever been a part of,” says Pape, who sells potted herbs, blueberry plants, perennials, melons and sweet corn. “I would equate them with being pretty close to the green markets in New York City.”
The markets have more to offer than food products. Lewes features chef demonstrations and lectures by master gardeners. Fenwick plans to add cooking demonstrations. Rehoboth now offers information on green living, conservation and alternative energy.
Artists also get involved. Lesley McCaskill, for instance, paints at the Rehoboth market several times a summer. “It adds some nice flavor to the market,” she says. “Everybody is talking and laughing. I like that people are mingling. They’re not in a rush to get their stuff and leave.”
The direct merchant-customer connection is yet another attraction of farmers markets. “It’s local food from local farmers to local people—boom!” says Allen of Hattie’s Garden. “People really, really like to buy stuff from people they know and people they get to know.”
What they may not know is that the Lewes market is feeding more than onsite customers. Last year it donated about $3,500 worth of food to Casa San Francisco, which aids the poor in the Milton area. The operation, now run by the Diocese of Wilmington, includes a brown bag program that feeds 260 families a month and an emergency food program that offers up to $80 worth of groceries to those in need.
“They’re very generous with us, which we certainly appreciate, especially since the request for emergency food is up almost 100 percent from last year,” says Bill Post, program manager of Casa San Francisco.
If past years are any indication, that generosity will continue. “The market is a huge hit, and the community loves us,” Dardine says of the Lewes venue. “Every year, it becomes better and better.”