GEORGETOWN, Del. — Bernadine ‘Bernie’ Prince believes that the future of farm markets is bright.
She is the co-founder and was the former co-director of FreshFarm, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., that operates a network of producer-only farmers markets in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
FreshFarm, with its school programs, chef demonstrations and other innovations, is considered a model for producer-only farm markets. Besides its markets being a place for small farmers to sell their wares, FreshFarm has a mission to educate consumers and provide them with access to healthy and nutritious foods. It is billed as nothing short of a way to improve health and enhance lives.
Prince retired from FreshFarm in 2015. But her involvement in agriculture continues. Today, she and her husband, Ray Prince, live on a small 10-acre property near Georgetown, Delaware, called Blue Skies Farm. Together, they make chive-blossom vinegar and grow turnips, fava beans, strawberries, horseradish, carrots, fennel, swiss chard, beets, cucumber melons (a type of round Italian cucumber), garlic and sesame seeds as well as other crops. They also grow culinary herbs and flowers such as peonies and dahlias.
Their sesame is descended directly from sesame seeds that Thomas Jefferson got from France, Bernie said.
Blue Skies Farm, which is also the title of a Willie Nelson song, is the only farm name the two could agree on.
In 2016, Ray received a USDA specialty crop block grant to research whether truffles — a potential niche crop — can be grown commercially in the area. Truffles are edible fungi, or mushrooms, that grow around certain trees and can bring a high price.
As part of the project, the couple has planted 120 hazelnut, oak and pecan trees. The roots of the 3-year-old trees have been inoculated with four different types of truffle spores. The two are also studying whether truffles can be grown on local native hickory trees.
Truffles usually grow on nut trees, although some can be found on Douglas firs and a few fruit trees like Asian pears and cherries.
Ray said that three types of truffles, including pecan truffles, are native to America. So far, he said, truffles are commercially grown in Virginia, Texas, Oregon, California and North Carolina.
Truffles survive by providing trees with nutrients and water during the growing season. In return, the truffles (which cannot photosynthesize) take up some of the sap from the tree’s roots, he said.
Ray, a former professor at the University of Colorado and James Madison University, thinks that truffles could be grown and sold locally on a small scale. While the most expensive truffles retail for nearly $1,500 a pound, the pecan truffle only costs about $10 an ounce.
“That’s not outrageous. People would be willing to try that,” he said.
Ray said the truffles do well in sandy, loamy soil like the local Sussex County soils. They prefer a higher pH of 7.5 to 8, so farmers would need to add lime to the soil, he said.
While truffles have a reputation of being rare and carrying an expensive price tag, they were once a staple for the common person, he said. Truffles are credited with saving many farms in France when both the wine and silk industries there suffered devastating setbacks.
Both Bernie and Ray feel that truffles could be a secondary crop for local farmers. They are harvested in winter and could provide income in the off-season, the couple said.
“It could be a cottage industry,” Ray said.
“Think what a value that would be for a small landowner,” Bernie added.
She feels like it could add value to woodlands, thereby helping to preserve those wooded parcels.
“I think it would save some of the small woodlots,” she said.
Blue Skies Farm produce is sold to restaurants and at local farm markets, including the Historic Lewes Farmers Market. On Saturday morning, the two can be seen at the market peddling baby turnips, horseradish or whatever produce was harvested that week.
‘Making a Difference’ at FarmFresh
Before the award-winning Historic Lewes Farmers Market in Lewes first opened some years ago, the organizers had sought the advice of FreshFarm. It put the advice to good use and is now a successful market.
Bernie thinks there will always be a place for farm markets, which have grown exponentially in many areas of the U.S. In Delaware, there are now 21 farm markets with over $3 million in sales in 2017, according to Delaware’s Department of Agriculture.
Some, like Lewes, have a waiting list for new farmers.
“I think there is always going to be a place for that local farm market. ... It’s connecting with life, in a way. The food tastes better and it’s worth investing in,” she said. “I always said you can make a living feeding your neighbors. You don’t have to feed the world.”
About her work at FreshFarm, Bernie is proud of its historic success. Bernie Prince and Ann Harvey Yonkers launched FreshFarm in 1996 as a public education program of the American Farmland Trust.
A year later, they opened a single farmers market in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, D.C., with approximately 15 farmers from four states.
“D.C. is where foreign policy is made. What better place to have a farmers market?” she said.
In 2002, they left the umbrella of the American Farmland Trust.
In 2006, Prince and Yonkers received the Women Chefs and Restaurateurs’ Women Who Inspire Community Service Award. One year later, they were awarded the Innovator Award from the Washington, D.C., Economic Partnership for their work in creating producer-only farm markets in the Washington area.
In 2008, Prince and Yonkers established the Farmer Fund, renamed the Jean Wallace Douglas Fund, providing farmers and producers with scholarships to further their education, attend professional conferences and access technical training.
In 2009, FreshFarm started a program called FoodPrints at Watkins Elementary School in D.C. The school garden and nutrition curriculum effort eventually expanded to nine schools.
The food program provides recipes, offers nutrition information and allows children to help prepare food.
“I say it puts the fun back in learning. ... I love it when they are doing onions and they give them swimming goggles,” Bernie said. “This is the future of our country. I really thought it was important to educate that next generation.”
“In third grade, they were learning the difference between energy-rich food and nutrition-rich food.” she said.
Today, FreshFarm operates 14 markets in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, and has been in existence for 21 years.
“It’s part of our lives. We eat every single day in this country. (It’s about) learning how our food is grown and the people who grow it and the value of good quality food. ... You’re really using the market to educate every day,” she said. “People connect with food on a very visceral level.”
To be successful, Bernie said that people need to find out what kind of a market will fit their area, their farmers’ and their consumers’ needs. The community needs to be invested and get involved. It’s not one size fits all, she said. “Figure out what works best. ... People thought that these markets just happened. They didn’t.”
“I feel like I made a difference with the farmers markets,” Bernie said.
“Our 5-year-old granddaughter is waiting for the day to be strong enough to pull the carrots out of the ground,” said Bernie, laughing.